Together with “The Farewell”, “La Belle Epoque” was my favourite movie of 2019. It is original, surprising, fun, beautifully executed and manages the rare feat of being both taught-provoking and heart-warming.
This is a complicated but completely and immediately immersive movie. One of the reasons for this is the way the movie is shot. The camera work and the lighting create a lot of the mood of the movie. They go from intense close-ups to rapid action to nostalgic scene-setting to day-to-day storytelling with shifts in colour palette and camera angles that you don’t notice at the time but which signpost and reinforce the content.
For example, the opening scene is shot in candlelight but with tight close-ups that explode into action as things get bloody. We’re right there in “Black Mirror” land. Then the shot pulls back and we see that we’ve been watching a movie on an iPad and now we’re in a chic modern restaurant where the older guy, watching the movie, is looking confused. At the other end of the table, his wife and his son are quietly predicting what his reaction to what he’s seen will be. The transition is seamless and startling. It told me that, like the old guy watching the iPad, I had no idea what kind of movie this was going to be and all my assumptions were likely to be wrong. It also told me that, whatever kind of movie it was, it was going to be well-done.
The movie is… well, many things. I think if you sampled a movie-goers leaving a screening you’d get a wide variety of tags for “La Belle Epoque”, comedy, edgy avant-garde satire, feel-good rom-com, an exploration of the nature of memory, a celebration of engagement with life, a warning about how modern technology mixes the fake and the real and plays on our desires for a remembered past to create a consensual faux-reality.
It’s all those things and it does them all well.
It’s the story of a man whose marriage has stagnated because he’s no longer taking part in it. A man who has given up on his passion and is alienated by the all-pervasive digital technology around him that he doesn’t understand or value and which he thinks have put him out of his job as a political cartoonist. His rich, techno-savvy, Tesla-driving, seeking-distraction-with-an-affair-with-a-boring-man wife, tries to rescue him by arranging an opportunity for him to take part in the latest indulgence for the rich: a custom-built recreation of a point in the past where they can be any character they want to be. The “experience” includes full sets, actors in costume and a storyline to match the client’s fantasy.
The crux of the movie is that, when faced with this opportunity to be anyone at any time, our hero wants to be his eighteen-year-old self on the night he first met the woman who was to be his wife in a café in Paris called La Belle Epoque.
What follows is a wonderfully nuanced and compassionate look at memory and love and identity, articulated by layers of storytelling, playacting and self-deceit that lead, in the end, to something real and authentic.
It’s a film filled with humour and romance as well as regret and loss and forgiveness. It’s a movie for grown-ups. I highly recommend it to you.