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LA BELLE ÉPOQUE

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The way we were

One of the worst parts of aging is memory. The body forgets who we once were, but the mind doesn’t. It lingers on past pains, missed opportunities, and potential loves lost. Nostalgia coats everything in a saccharine haze as we look back at a subjective life rewritten by our desires. But what if we could go back? What if we could relive a moment again to say how much we cared or how sorry we were? In LA BELLE EPOQUE, elegantly directed by Nicolas Bedos, that dream becomes a reality.

Victor is a technophobe in his sixties, content on letting the world rush by without a second thought. His wife, Marianne (a withering Fanny Ardant), is openly contemptuous of him and flaunts her jubilant, affair-ridden lifestyle in his face. As their marriage collapses, Victor receives a message from a young man he once helped, desperate to repay the favor. Specializing in the recreation of memories, Antoine (Guillaume Canet) offers to send his friend into an era of his choosing for the weekend. Remembering the time happiest for him, Victor rebuilds his twenties during the long summer he first met his wife. 

Of course, none of this is real. Victor is still an old man, and the people occupying the cafe of his memories are actors. At best, they’re amalgamations of memory and fantasy preserved in a moment in time. Director Bedos asks us just how real these memories we hold on to are. Victor remembers it was raining during his first encounter with Marianne, which the other doesn’t recall. Memory is such a fickle beast, buttressed by emotion in a place we can’t reach. Meeting the recollection of Marianne from his youth (a dazzling Doria Tillier), it’s clear Victor doesn’t honestly remember who he once was — only who he wanted to be.

It’s one of the many poignant and touching realizations in the film. We don’t really want to be exactly as we were. It is our physical selves, young and beautiful, that we long to be. Who would like to have all the insecurities of their youth returned? It’s a narcissistic endeavor, as it rests on the belief that only we are allowed to change and grow. We didn’t have the answers or the courage to act then, so we hope to return now better equipped, leaving others in stasis to accommodate our desires. 

Knowing what you know now

This is an ambitious, if not altogether successful, film, made better by how it captures the essence of how nostalgia feels. It accurately pinpoints how we model our memories based on pop-culture and unrealized dreams and gleefully plays with that expectation. As in Peter Weir’s masterful TRUMAN SHOW, the alternate reality built for Victor is an elaborate film set, complete with controlled weather. The best and most compelling scenes occur in a small, dimly lit cafe, where Victor’s memories return for brief windows to repeat their lives. (A heartbreaking subplot features a man meeting his dead father, again and again, to work through his trauma.)

Victor naturally remains oblivious to the irony inherent in trapping his memories in an isolated location. The humor is wry and melancholy as Victor slowly comes to grips with his blindness. 

Hard light of the present

Outside the fabricated past, the relationships are fickle and odd. I’m still confused why Victor would desire to reunite with his wife, whom the film portrays as a spiteful adulterer. We see who the two used to be, or at least who they desired to be, but it doesn’t change what they’ve become. Equally mysterious is the depiction of the relationship between Antoine and Margot as anything but toxic. Antoine is a short-tempered and abusive bully, yet they can’t help but return to each other. I don’t understand it, and maybe never will. Yet these are not unique situations, so something about them must ring true.

These are ultimately minor quibbles. And it’s hard to be angry at ambition. Where it succeeds is far more important than where it fails. Those successes are as grand as life itself, allowing us to project our pasts onto a fresh canvas. 

At its best, in a way, it works as a form of therapy. It reminds us that living in the past is an equivalent of listening to an echo, so strained and often repeated it has lost all shape and form, eventually hearing only what we want to hear.

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