Australia

Back to the past: time travel to the era where love bloomed

LA BELLE EPOQUE

★★★★

Rated M, 115 minutes, now showing

Nostalgia can be one of the many side-effects of ageing. The further you come, the more you want to go back.

It's a feeling that has overwhelmed Daniel Auteuil in Nicolas Bedos' La Belle Epoque, which is not set in Paris the 1890s. It's about the obsession that Auteuil's Victor has with the 1970s, or what he calls "pre-history - when I slept with my wife."

Marianne (Fanny Ardant) character has decided it is time to move on from a long marriage.

Marianne (Fanny Ardant) character has decided it is time to move on from a long marriage.

In particular, he'd like to go back to May, 1974, and the day that he and his wife, Marianne (Fanny Ardant), met and fell in love. Things are different now. Victor, a cartoonist who has never made his peace with the computer age, has grown dull, cynical and shabby and Marianne can no longer stand him. She fancies someone else. At least she's persuaded herself that she does. The extent of her desperation can be measured by the fact that the new man is even less attractive than Victor. But she's about to throw him out and their son, Maxime (Michael Cohen), takes pity on him, offering to help him indulge his dreams with a trip back in time.

Michael's friend, Antoine (Guillaume Canet) has discovered that nostalgia can be commercialised. He runs a company called Time Travellers, which recreates long-gone eras with the company's specially built and furnished sound stages. In effect, you're given the chance to star in your own movie, dressing the part and interacting with performers cast as the people you would most like to see. There is, of course, one shortcoming. They're young and you're not, which sharpens the gags but proves tricky when Victor develops a crush on Margot (Doria Tillier), the actress cast as Marianne.

Time Travellers gives clients the chance to star in their own movie.

Time Travellers gives clients the chance to star in their own movie.

For Margot and Antoine, this is only to be expected. If Victor has been swept up in the fantasy, they're doing their jobs. And they have their own problems. They've long been engaged in a highly charged affair, which means that work and love are inextricably mixed together – a little too mixed-up for Margot's taste. With a scene-stealing verve and a lot of charm – despite the volcanic eruptions – Canet portrays Antoine as the kind of director who, if he falls for an actress, can't separate the real woman from her image in the camera lens. His affection fluctuates giddily according to Margot's last performance and she responds in an equally explosive style. Like Ardant, she has no difficulty in taking command of a scene.

Bedos wastes none of the satirical opportunities offered by what's happening on the Time Travellers' sound stages. The son of the actor and trenchant political humorist, Guy Bedos, he has a sharp eye for parody and he's given the company's clients eclectic tastes. We drop in on the Napoleonic era and polite society in the 17th century and we spend a few disorienting minutes in the Third Reich before Victor's adventures are over.

You can sympathise with his wistful desire to return to an era which his memory as idealised as a lost Eden.

I would like to report that his retro wardrobe of flares and wide collars have a rejuvenating effect on his appearance because it's clear that Bedos would like you to think so, but it doesn't happen. Victor does become more cheerful but Auteuil has worked so effectively in deglamourising him that his romantic appeal is irretrievably lost in time. In contrast, Ardant's allure remains as indestructible as ever. Marianne is pretty ruthless and pretentious, too, avidly gobbling up the latest intellectual gossip at the kind of dinner parties that Victor is justified in loathing. But you can sympathise. If she wasn't so strong, he could take her down with him.

But Auteuil does extract a lot mischievousness from the role and you can sympathise with his wistful desire to return to an era which his memory as idealised as a lost Eden.

Marianne has no such illusions about it. Bedos gives her the last word on the '70s as she reminds him of its evils, including the fact that rape went unpunished, abortions were banned and everyone went around in a haze of cigarette smoke. I doubt that Victor is convinced. For him, it's the era when his life began and he'll never recapture that sense of anticipation again. Nostalgia does have something going for it.

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