'La Belle Epoque': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
One of the best French films of 1974.

Nicolas Bedos' old-school French farce stars Guillaume Canet, Daniel Auteuil and Fanny Ardant.

La Belle Epoque is the sort of vastly entertaining mainstream French film that was produced with regularity during the 1970s-'80s and was sometimes remade by Hollywood. Those days are long gone but it could happen with this witty, sexy and original romantic comedy that touches many points of satisfaction. This is the rare contemporary French attraction that looks to have real prospects for a vibrant international career. Not a high-art film, the sharp-minded film played out of competition in the main selection at Cannes.

Given the veteran cast, one might not think that actor and screenwriter Nicolas Bedos’ second feature (after Mr & Mme Adelman in 2017) would likely set many erotic sparks flying. But the very up-to-the-minute script pivots on a Westworld-like dramatic conceit that permits well-heeled customers to revisit old times and play out fantasies of the past recaptured, all in a novel way that's beautifully served by very adept writing and staging. Everything clicks here, all the time.

Heavy with wisecracks and sardonic smarts, the film starts bam-bam-bam with sharp remarks emanating from the mouths of mostly older folks socializing at what looks like an early 19th century French salon. Those in attendance are, in fact, modern citizens who have paid a pretty penny for a virtual trip into the past courtesy of Time Travelers, a sophisticated outfit that does a convincing job of re-creating olden times in a very thorough manner, from food and clothes to the mean-spirited quality of wit. No one says “um” or “like” or “you know.”

The director/ringleader is the short-tempered Antoine (Guillaume Canet), while the guests of special interest this night in a palatial setting are 70ish Victor (Daniel Auteuil) and his beautiful wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), whose caustic waterfall wit is employed almost exclusively in the service of humiliating her hirsute mate; “I think you’ve been alive too long,” she lets fly at a vulnerable moment. All evening, the barbs are fired off as quickly as at an old Friars Club roast but with more sincerely intended effect.

Marianne’s scorn is no joke — her unkempt husband, a former newspaper cartoonist, has pretty much rejected the idea of keeping up with the modern world — and she happily flaunts her own cheating. Ardant’s marvelously overheated performance sets the tone, with Auteuil’s Victor as the sad-sack target, but the latter comes into his own when, at considerable expense, he decides to plunge more thoroughly into the escapist opportunity offered by new technology to revisit the world of the past. 

For Victor, this is the early 1970s, when he was in his 20s. The setting is an entirely realistic and traditional French neighborhood the anchor of which is a classic old bistro, where the first difference you notice is that everyone there smokes like a furnace. The cars are tin cans and racial epithets sometimes fly, but the music is great.

What Victor is trying to recapture is not just his fondest moment in time but the youthful Marianne he first fell in love with, who’s represented in the time-travel interludes by Margot, a waitress at the bistro (embodied by Doria Tillier), whom one quickly accepts as the youthful Marianne, the love object she’s playing. Like seemingly everyone else, the substitute has been been very well rehearsed and is fed lines that make it easy for Victor to fall in love with her all over again.

True to French farce traditions, a host of obstacles present themselves, and many are laugh-out-loud funny. Victor, who’s cleaned up his act physically, is having such a good time revisiting the world of his youth that he would much prefer to stay there. This, in turn, requires a lot more money, plus a willingness and ability on the part of the director and actress to perpetuate the charade, during which, bien sur, Victor becomes more and more obsessed with the young version of his wife.

Impressively, Bedos successfully jumps through the many creative hoops he sets and in the process pulls off the most thoroughly entertaining big-screen French farce in a very long time, one that’s both classical and modern; he uses all the old tropes but convincingly adorns them with up-to-the-minute attitudinal and technological trappings.

The director also gets immaculate work from his players, beginning with the superb old pros Auteuil and Ardant, who display the energy of players half their age and effortlessly layer the film with a veneer of Gallic knowingness and sophistication.

When Victor is finally ejected from his youthful revelry and forced to confront his actual status as an old guy, the pang feels real. And the film stays in the 1970s re-creation long enough to let you seriously ponder whether life really might have been better in the era before cellphones, laptops and texting and innumerable other modern conveniences. But the final payoff is strong, too, leaving a satisfied feel at the end.

This is accomplished commercial filmmaking of a type rarely seen these days, much less applied to this kind of old-fashioned but sharp-minded material.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition)

Production: Les Films du Kiosque

Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Doria Tillier, Fanny Ardant, Pierre Arditi, Denis Podalydes

Director-screenwriter: Nicolas Bedos

Producers: Francois Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne

Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc

Production designer: Stephane Rozenbaum

Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovski

Editors: Anny Danche, Florent Vassault

Music: Nicolas Bedos, Anne-Sophie Versnaeyen

Casting: Emmanuelle Prevost

115 minutes