In Cinemas

LA BELLE ÉPOQUE

Heartbreaking and melancholy, LA BELLE ÉPOQUE delicately captures the bittersweet nostalgia of youth with great skill and tenderness.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of the worst parts about 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 ÉPOQUE, 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 with ease. As their marriage collapses, Victor is approached by a message from the past; a young man he once helped wanting 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 really 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. As he meets the recollected Marianne of his youth (a dazzling Doria Tillier), it becomes clear that Victor doesn’t truly 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 for. Who would want to have all the insecurities of their youth returned? It’s a narcissistic endeavour, resting on the belief that it is only us who 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 own desires.

This is an ambitious, if not altogether successful film, made better by capturing 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 is reminiscent of a film set, complete with controlled weather. The best and most compelling scenes are the repetition of Victor’s memories, each given brief windows to relive themselves. (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 to a solitary location. The humor is tinged with melancholy as the truth begins to dawn on him.

Outside fabricated past, the relationships are fickle and odd. I’m still confused why Victor desires 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 own 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 we hear only what we want to hear.

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