La Belle Époque




Something intriguingly different yet less satisfying than it might have been.

La belle époque  

Daniel Auteuil


The title of this French movie from writer/director Nicolas Bedos would lead one to expect a tale that takes us back into the past and, indeed, the very opening appears to put us in a 19th century setting. However, that scene suddenly erupts into something else entirely and the film becomes a contemporary romantic comedy centred on a couple who have been married for twenty-five years. He is Victor Drumond (Daniel Auteuil), a once successful cartoonist now unemployed, and she is Marianne (Fanny Ardant), a psychoanalyst having an affair with a patient, François payed by Denis Podalydès. But it is Victor who, following arguments, walks out and before long what has come across as a comedy with some neat dialogue turns into a tale so improbable that it asks to be accepted as an attractive fantasy.


Victor has a best friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), who has set up in business in the most novel way by creating an organisation known as ‘Time Travellers’. It relies on clients who want to be transported to a past age, something which is achieved for at least one day by recreating the period of their choice, building sets for that purpose and employing actors to represent the people involved. Victor is encouraged to become a client and asks to be taken back to a May day in Lyon in 1974 when he met the love of his life, a figure now reincarnated by an actress, Margot (Doria Tillier), who is in fact the on/off lover of Antoine. Initially Victor claims that this woman whom he loved is now dead, but we soon come to realise that in actuality she is Marianne and one feels that Antoine, fully aware of this, is in fact hoping that reconstructing the old romance will bring the couple together again.


The only touch of realism here comes late on when Victor acknowledges that the cost of all this has left him broke. However, the appeal of the piece lies in the romantic fantasy of revisiting the time when love first bloomed. Even if the romantic element were less central, the idea of being able to return briefly to the days when one was younger and to a youthful mindset with knowledge of how life would work out has something intriguing about it. Here it is partly expressed through the nostalgia of pop songs of the period on the soundtrack along with a Billie Holiday standard and one finds that the notion is more potent, not less, because Victor knows that those around him are actors whose words are the ones that he has remembered. Consequently, this ‘Marianne’ evokes the past while also attracting in her own right.


Auteuil playing to his age, but still a man of appeal, is well cast and is at his best in an emotional scene towards the close. Fanny Ardant is on strong form too, but other players - Canet, Podalydès and Pierre Arditi in particular - are talented enough to feel rather wasted here. However, the main weakness lies in the fact that, despite lasting for close on two hours, there is a feeling that as writer Bedos doesn’t really know where to take his unusual concept. As director he not only favours tantalisingly abrupt intercuts but also seeks energy in quick edits and camera movement, devices which can seem far more at home when not, as here, seen in the ‘Scope format. But the crucial disappointment stems from the sense that the concept could have yielded so much more and that piling on more twists about actors in assumed roles results in it becoming over-embroidered rather than rich. Nevertheless, there is something haunting about this film and its central notion.




Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Doria Tillier, Fanny Ardant, Pierre Arditi, Denis Podalydès, Michaël Cohen, Jeanne Arènes, Bertrand Poncet, Lizzie Brocheré, Christiane Millet, Maria Verdi.


Dir Nicolas Bedos, Pro François Kraus and Denis Pineau-Valencienne, Screenplay Nicolas Bedos, Ph Nicolas Bolduc, Pro Des Stéphane Rozenbaum, Ed Anny Danché and Florent Vassault, Music Nicolas Bedos and Anne-Sophie Versnaeyen, Costumes Emmanuelle Youchnovski.


Les Films du Kiosque/Pathé/Orange Studio/France 2 Cinéma/Canal+/Cine+-Pathé.
115 mins. France. 2019. Rel: 22 November 2019. Cert. 15.