It feels beyond redundant to say that nostalgia has had a huge impact on cinema in recent years. When 2019 has new releases called Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King, what more do you need to know? However, considering the title of Nicolas Bedos’ new film is La Belle Époque, nostalgia is going to come up quite a lot. The allure of that “simpler time when things were better” has always been a powerful one but never has it been so universally accepted, burrowing its way into everything from video games to politics. We’re now a world full of people who would rather be alive some other time.
Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is an ageing cartoonist who has stubbornly refused to adapt to the 21st century. New technologies baffle and enrage him, he doesn’t own a smartphone and he says the word ‘internet’ like a hex. His bitterness has some justification, he used to work for a newspaper but was dropped when they went fully digital. He hasn’t drawn or held down a job since and is financially supported by his wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant) who, by contrast, has fully embraced the conveniences of the modern world. She also quotes philosophy a lot, in case you didn’t know this film was French.
The two get into a particularly nasty argument. Marianne mocks Victor for being a boring, out of touch crank. He berates her for putting on a VR headset last thing before bed. Things get heated and alcohol-influenced, the end result being Marianne throwing Victor out of the house and onto the street.
With no money and nowhere to go, Victor recalls one thing he does have: an invitation from a company called Time Travellers. They offer clients the chance to revisit any point in their lives. Not for real, of course — the locations are all sound stages and the people actors — but it is a meticulous recreation, masterminded by the fiery and perfectionist director Antoine (Guillaume Canet). Victor decides to go for it, though not before wrangling together enough cash to pay the exorbitant fee. As we are told, “Nostalgia has become big business”.
Victor chooses to return to 1974. This is what he sees as his peak: a time when he was young, creative and upbeat. The world was more clear-cut back then and he was more certain of his place in it. He doesn’t choose to relive just any day, though. He picks the exact day when, sitting with a drink in his favourite café, he first met Marianne.
The Truman Show crossed with Synecdoche New York is probably the best description of this high-concept premise. Fans of either will get a lot of enjoyment out of its ingeniously meta story, which explores the god-like role of creators, the artificiality of art and the difference between the past and our recollection of it.
But while La Belle Époque has the smarts to back up these big ideas, it never becomes overly cerebral. It has a lightness that keeps everything sharp, fast and fun. Witty put-downs are rattled off with an almost Armando Iannucci-ish flair. Performances, excellent across the board, strike a balance between cynicism and warmth. The central couple of Victor and Marianne are particularly great, steadily reveal new layers to their characters right up to the last minute. At the beginning, we can’t imagine what they saw in each other. By the end, we can’t imagine them apart.
Despite its premise about rebuilding the past, La Belle Époque is very much a film about today. You would expect a boldly original story released in this nostalgia-soaked cinema landscape to wag its finger at the audience and chastise them for indulging in the past, but its thoughts on nostalgia are a bit more nuanced than that. It is nostalgia that allows its characters to reconnect with old feelings. It is nostalgia that allows them to reassess and learn from all that came before. And what initially appears to be a ‘kids these days’ rebuttal to our modern dependence on technology eventually becomes a celebration of human connection and the lengths we’ll go to save it.