We’re all nostalgic. It’s hard not to be. We enjoy the escape that nostalgia affords us. Whether it’s back to a period of time in our own lives or to an ideal historical era we love to visit in our daydreams, the past has a firm influence on how we perceive and shape ourselves.
La Belle Époque is a film about nostalgia. It’s a film about what nostalgia can add to – and take away from – our experience of the present. The title itself harks back to a highly favoured period of time in European history, the pre-war Belle Époque. Within the film, however, “La Belle Époque” refers to a café in 1974, where our protagonist Victor (a brilliant Daniel Auteuil) met his wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant).
In 2019, however, Victor is miserable. He’s been left behind by the times. Sick of the technology that pervades the lives of the people around him and unemployed after the newspaper for which he worked as a cartoonist went digital, he longs for a time where, in his words, “people sat at cafés and talked to each other”. So when an unusual offer to“travel back in time” comes from Antoine (Guillaume Canet), a childhood friend of Victor’s son, Victor leaves everything behind and goes back to Lyon, 1974. This is done not through actual time travel but rather a service provided by “Time Travellers”, a business owned by Antoine which specialises in perfect recreations of historical events. There, he meets his young wife, played by Antoine’s ex-girlfriend Margot (Doria Tillier). In this simulacrum, however, things are bound to get confusing. After all, living in two eras at once can’t be easy. Just writing this review has me doing a few mental loops.
To be perfectly honest, going into this film, my expectations weren’t high. For the past 20 years, French comedy has often been ‘“thin’”. Romantic comedy especially seems to lean heavily on cliché and feigned self-awareness. This is probably due to the attempt most modern film industries make to imitate Hollywood. If the formula works, why bother doing anything differently? Very quickly however, I was surprised at how well this film managed to keep switching things up. La Belle Époque feels like a truly self-aware film. It knows the Hollywood tropes and even keeps some. Despite this, it feels original, new, and most importantly, enjoyable.
The best of La Belle Époque comes from the interactions between Victor and the Mariannes. Victor is a grumpy old man, but sympathetic, and the growth he experiences feels genuine and earned. He learns a lot about himself from both 1974 and 2019 Marianne, and Director Nicolas Bedos excels at showing us Victor’s growth.
There are some moments that feel like Baby Boomer commentary on technological dependence, but even the 2018 film Doubles Vies from Olivier Assayas found it hard to walk the line between actual cultural critique and sentimental polemic. As well, La Belle Epoque makes the point that most of what we remember is seen through rose-tinted glasses. Marianne comments that living in the ‘70s, when everyone lit a cigarette whenever they could, made her feel like she was “living in an ashtray”.
La Belle Epoque is not a brilliant movie. However, not everything needs to be brilliant, or really dissect the fundamental truths and problems of life. It’s okay to just be a good, enjoyable movie. In this way, La Belle Epoque does a wonderful job. Go watch it, take some friends, have a nice night that you can look back on fondly when you’re 62 and really struggling to use the new iPhone 26 Plus.
3.5 packets of Gitanes out of 5
Words by Lachlan Serventy
Lachlan majors in philosophy and economics, which means he can never choose between RMs and Doc Martens when he’s getting ready for uni.
Image courtesy of Joshua Cahill.