The way we were
One of the worst parts of aging is memory. The body forgets who we once were; the mind dwells on all that it has lost. It lingers on past pains, missed opportunities, and the potential loves unfulfilled. 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), embittered by Victor’s resistance to change, flaunts her jubilant, affair-ridden lifestyle in revenge. As their marriage collapses, Victor receives a message from his past. A young man he once helped is now desperate to repay the favor. Specializing in the recreation of memories, Antoine (Guillaume Canet) offers to send Victor into a recreated 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 dreams are actors. At best, they’re amalgamations of memory and fantasy preserved in a moment in time.
Throughout the film, Bedos asks us just how real our memories truly are. They shape Victor (and us) every day, yet they remain elusive and unreliable at best. Victor remembers his first encounter with Marianne under delicate rainfall, which Marianne doesn’t recall. Memory is such a fickle beast, buttressed by emotion in a place we can’t reach. Meeting his version 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 offered by the film. We don’t really want to be exactly as we once were. It is our physical selves, the young and beautiful chassis, that we long for. Not the emotional fallibilities and emotional anchors that weighted us down.
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 years ago, so we hope to return now better equipped, leaving others in stasis to accommodate our desires.
Knowing what you know now
LA BELLE EPOQUE 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.
Similar to Peter Weir’s masterful THE TRUMAN SHOW, the alternate reality built for Victor is an elaborate film set, where the illusion is so total everything from light, air, and even weather can be adjusted. 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. (One heartbreaking subplot features a man meeting his dead father, again and again, to work through his trauma.)
Victor naturally remains oblivious to the irony of the situation. His memories are now alive in isolation, so removed from reality it might as well be a mausoleum. The humor is wry and melancholy as Victor slowly regains his emotional compass.
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 relationship between Antoine and Margot. Antoine is a short-tempered and abusive bully, whom Margot rejects and encourages in equal measure. They’re oil and water, 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.
Ultimately, these are minor quibbles, and it’s hard to deride ambition. Where LA BELLE EPOQUE 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’s a film as a form of therapy. It reminds us that nostalgia can suffocate us. How living in the past is the equivalent of listening to an strained echo, one so often repeated it has lost all shape and form. Eventually becoming a lie only we can hear.