Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is a Grumpy Old Man who refuses to come to terms with modern technology. He doesn’t have a mobile phone, nor does he have a job any more. Time was when he had a very successful job as a political caricaturist, but the paper he worked on has no place for anything as old school as a cartoon.
By contrast, Victor’s wife Marianne drives a Tesla car – or rather it drives her – and she prefers to spend her evenings in bed with a VR headset than with Victor. She used to be a Communist but voted Sarkozy at the last election. Victor’s persistent miserabilism has caused her to take a lover – as it happens Victor’s former best friend and old boss, who was responsible for sacking him. After a tempestuous row, she thows Victor out.
In his despair, Victor remembers a present that his son had given him – a trip into the past. Sets are built and actors are trained to help you relive momentous times in history. Normally this is a drinking session with Ernest Hemingway or a fawning session in Marie Antoinette’s court, but Victor has another idea. He wants to reenact that night in 1974 when he first met Marianne in a Lyon bar.
The reenactments are organised by Antoine, an old schoolfriend of Victor’s son, who has a little problem with control freakery. He takes copious notes (and in Victor’s case sketches) and orders his actors to follow a tight script, losing his rag if any of them tries to improvise. At one point when someone asks if he thinks he’s God he replies “no, I’m a scriptwriter”.
The film tiptoes precariously across the tightrope of accepting the logic of the scenario it has set up. Victor is aware that this is all an illusion – there are spotlights hanging from the ceiling and music comes on at opportune moments when the editorial team feels they’re necessary. Victor himself often breaks the fourth wall and asks the others if they’re actors or other paying customers. At other times he says “it wasn’t like that”, and demands they replay the scene only this time with rain (provided by in-house sprinklers, natch).
And yet, despite all the artificiality, Victor is seduced by the situation. He starts to fall, first for the younger Marianne, then for Margot, the actress playing her. He invites Margot to flee the scene with him, taking a short cut through other reenactments, giving Victor the gratifying opportunity to punch Hitler.
This is made even more complicated by the fact that Margot is Antoine’s on-off girlfriend. As Victor pays to repeat further evenings after he met Marianne, Antoine is enraged by Margot’s proficiency at flirting with him. Victor is clearly infatuated with Margot, but what does she think of him? And what will happen on the fourth night when Victor and Marianne slept together? Adding to this drama, Victor is Antoine’s childhood idol, and inspired him through a tricky part of his adolescence when he felt abandoned by everyone else.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with the Truman Show, but this film is much more intelligent and profound than the Jim Carrey showpiece. The Truman Show took one simple premise and ran with it efficiently, but La Belle Epoque brings in all sorts of other levels of ambiguity. And, for all that Jim Carrey was noticeably better in The Truman Show then his previous films, he is no Daniel Auteil.
It has become a film cliché to say “no-one is what they seem”, although we are now aware enough of film conventions to know who exactly is pretending to be whom. But I must admit to a couple of times in this film where (1) I got taken by surprize and (2) I was mad at myself for not recognising what seemed obvious in retrospect. There are countless scenes where you know someone is making it up as they go along, but you’re not quite sure who.
And on top of all this, in amongst all the musings on the nature of nostalgia and memory and the basic love stories, there are some hilarious bits. There is a throwaway scene, where Victor has shaved his beard off and donned is 1970s suit and is travelling the Metro. A hipster nods at him, obviously in awe of his dress sense. It is neither big nor clever, it doesn’t move the plot forward, and it is hysterical. There are many other such scenes hidden away amongst the clever stuff.
The film is also not afraid to take on the social questions that it raises. If you take the first quarter hour, you would assume that the film fully endorses Victor’s nostalgic technophobia. Maybe we really have lost everything and nothing’s like it used to be. Maybe the world really has gone to hell in a handcart. But in a late scene Victor clicks on the news and there’s a report of the Yellow Vest protests. From all we have learned of Victor so far, I am sure he would approve of ther being at least some developments in the modern world.
The more this film went on, the more I found myself enjoying it. It may have just caught me on a good evening, but I feel that it manages to be both profound, moving and intelligent. And there’s not many films you can say that about.