Review: Step Back in Time with ‘La Belle Epoque”s Misplaced Nostalgia Trip

“What period would you relive, if you had a choice?” This is the question posed to our protagonist at the beginning of La Belle Epoque. Perhaps you’d like to reinhabit an earlier version of yourself, one who knew a love not yet turned sour. Or perhaps, as seen in the film’s Tarantino-esque opening sequence, you’d like to indulge in a blood-soaked revenge fantasy set in pre-revolutionary France. This is the crux of Nicolas Bedos’ time-bending romantic comedy La Belle Epoque ― a film tailor-made for today’s boomers still stuck in the golden days of their youth.

Vincent, played by Daniel Auteuil, is a septuagenarian cartoonist living in Paris. Once a much-celebrated illustrator, he now finds himself living in the shadows of his golden years. He lost his job after the newspaper he worked for went digital, and his marriage to Marianne (Fanny Ardent) is flailing. To twist the knife in a little further, Marianne is sleeping with François, the man responsible for firing Vincent. 

Depressed and worn flat by life’s hurdles, Vincent receives his golden ticket out: an invitation to relive the past. Antoine (Guillame Canet), a childhood friend of his son’s, has grown up to run a successful production company (“Les Voyagers du Temp”, or “The Time Travelers”) that allows its wealthy patrons to revisit any period in history. Antoine decides to go back to 1974 in Lyon, when he first met his wife Marianne. What follows is a tumble of psychedelic prints, weed-carpeted floors, and flare pants that culminates in Vincent, naturally, falling for Margot (Doria Tiller), the young actress who plays his wife. 

The film’s two greatest assets are Ardent and Tiller. Their allure goes beyond the oft-idealised attraction of the French woman. Both are messy, confused, demanding women. Ardent is a true force, playing Marianne with such charm and magnetism that I could hardly take my eyes off of her. Likewise, Tiller sashays effortlessly between the role of Marianne, and her ‘real self’ Margot. Where young Marianne is sexy, charming, and aloof ― a static object onto whom Vincent projects his fantasies ― Margot is a struggling actress dragged down by a difficult upbringing and men who fail to truly see her. Margot’s on and off relationship with Antoine, the production company’s controlling, manipulative founder, is turbulent and at times even disturbing. He taunts her through her earpiece whilst she’s working, chiding her performance one minute and seducing her the next. Because of this, the happy ending between the two characters feels unearned and contrived, as Bedos clumsily attempts to force a satisfying finale on the audience. 

The beauty of Antoine’s time travelling enterprise is that time is reconstructed according to the client’s memory, and not reality. Lit by the sweet glow of first love, Vincent’s set is built meticulously to align perfectly with his memory of this time. Actors memorise Vincent’s recollection of the night verbatim, costume designers put together outfits that mimic those he would have worn, and producers puppeteer every element of the scene to ensure everything ― right down to the timing of a phone call ― is on cue. Paradoxically, this is also part of the whole operation’s problem. Of course, Vincent’s rosy-hued memory of first love is not really how things happened. From this warped looking glass, Vincent constructs his past. Time alters reality ― distorting it, sweetening it, erasing parts of it. What remains is memory. 

The film does take pause to reflect on the constructed nature of its premise. The project of reliving the past is always going to be a doomed one. We catch glimpses of this farce ― cracks in the veneer of time rewound. Antoine and his team are ever-present in every scene, always sitting just a double-sided mirror away from the action. Every actor on set has an earpiece. In one scene, Vincent asks a bar mate who the president is; while the actor stalls, the production team scramble to google the 1974 French president and relay this information to him.

Throughout the film, Victor laments the state of the world in the 21st century. He yearns for a time when politics were simply ‘left and right’, when technology meant a landline phone, and when love was easy. He blames the internet and the fall of print media for his stalled career. Nor does his deteriorating marriage have anything to do with him. Nothing, of course, is his fault. Marianne, while more open to the digital world (she tests out a new virtual reality gadget in the film’s opening scenes), still succumbs to this nostalgia for the ‘good old days.’ At a dinner party with friends, she blows up at the table after enduring a particularly cringey discussion about coffee enemas and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire.

This nostalgia for ‘simpler times’ is a recognisable boomer sentiment (one need only look at the slew of angry posts in the middle-aged section of Facebook and the ‘ok boomer’ responses from millennials). But it’s also one that’s deeply entrenched in a strata of the white, middle-class French psyche. The entire film pivots on a certain short-sighted romanticism for the past― one that I saw everywhere whilst living in Paris last year. Every monument, every street named after a French poet or playwright, every old brasserie― these are all reminders of a Paris that continues to circulate in the collective imagination, yet fails to reflect the Paris that exists today.

As May Ngo writes for The Lifted Brow, Paris is a “city that is always gazing at itself”. To walk its streets is “like being frozen in a museum”. La Belle Epoque’s characters, white middle-class boomers, mourn the days when life was little more than cheese boards and walks on the Seine, all the while ignoring the privilege that allows them to do so in the first place. Indeed, Paris’ migrant population, quite literally pushed to the city’s margins, do not have the luxury of sipping wine and mourning the past in this way. As Édouard Louis observed, “Among the Parisian bourgeois, I realised that politics is absolutely not about life or death, about being able to eat and afford medical care or not; that whatever the government right or left does will not stop them living, eating.” 

Taken simply as a feel-good comedy, La Belle Epoque is a satisfying enough watch. In one scene, Bedos comedically reveals the inherent farce in the project of reconstructing the past. Running from the set after a pot-infused party, Vincent escapes through a reenactment of Nazi Germany, and stops to punch ‘Hitler’ in the face. By the film’s conclusion, Vincent’s trip to the past appears to have worked. But humour and a happy ending are not enough to save the misplaced nostalgia that the film hinges on.

It’s a shame really, because La Belle Epoque touches on some genuinely compelling themes. The commodification of nostalgia, the realities of aging ― these are all rich and worthwhile topics for exploration. Ultimately though, these are to indulge in a misplaced yearning for the past. La Belle Epoque is, at the end of the day, just a saccharine boomer comedy that falls flat.

La Belle Epoque is now screening as part of the Alliance Française Film Festival. Tickets are available here.

**********

Lauren Ironmonger is a writer working on Gadigal land whose favourite film of 2019 was Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She just got back from 6 months in Paris where she spent a lot of time crying in cinemas.

Lauren Ironmonger