My heart sinks these days when I see the cast list of new French movies containing familiar names of great actors from the past. All too often they seem to have phoned in their roles and appear perfectly content to pick up the paycheck without any concern for the film’s lack of quality. It came as a wonderful surprise, therefore, to find Daniel Auteuil and Fanny Ardant (both of whom have starred during recent years in as many duds as they have in hits) on top form in the glorious new movie by Nicolas Bedos, La Belle Époque.
Auteuil plays Victor, an illustrator in his 60s who is disillusioned with life and trapped in what seems to be a passionless marriage with the fiery and acerbic Marianne (Ardant). While Marianne embraces the technological world, using virtual-reality headsets and enjoying such fads as talking cars and coffee enemas, Victor rejects the paraphernalia of modern life. After Victor is thrown out of their home by Marianne, a company that stages elaborate re-enactments offers him the opportunity to re-create a scene from the past.
While some people might wish to go back to the Belle Époque or to experience Nazi Germany (the movie starts with one such re-enactment), Victor chooses to return to the day in 1974 when he met and fell in love with the strong-willed and independent Marianne in a café in Lyon. Relying on Victor’s drawings and memories of that day, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), the director of the production company and his team of technicians and actors (who are prompted through earpieces as the scene proceeds) painstakingly restage the moment for Victor.
Another layer of intrigue is added by the fact that the woman re-creating the role of the young Marianne, Martha (Doria Tillier), is having a volatile on-off affair with Antoine. Many of the tensions of their relationship spill over into the re-created scenes with Victor. Martha turns out to be just as feisty as Marianne was and is, and some of the dialogue between Antoine and Martha (through her earpiece) is deliciously caustic.
The whole cast of La Belle Époque is excellent, with Tillier particularly mesmerizing as Martha. Auteuil and Ardant show what extraordinary actors they are, and there is strong backup from the others. Pierre Arditi (whose performances normally annoy the hell out of me) is unexpectedly moving as one of the actors in Victor’s re-creation who makes use of the setting in 1974 to resurrect his relationship with his dead father.
Bedos has created a comic but touching meditation on love and loss. It is easy to see these re-enactments of the past, complete with directors, technicians and actors, as a metaphor for the role played by cinema and performances of all kinds in reliving old worlds or discovering new ones. Movies about movies are nothing new, but the fact that Bedos does it with such charm and panache (and with a rapier-sharp screenplay) makes La Belle Époque a cut above the normal fare.