As it now stands, virtual reality technology is clunky and unconvincing, offering little more than the illusion of interactivity. Someday, VR will make good on its potential, but until then, French writer-director Nicolas Bedos has conceived something better: a service whereby wealthy clients can pay a high-end reenactment troupe to stage a carefully orchestrated and totally convincing visit to a previous time of their choosing. Want to spend an evening as Marie Antoinette? Or pretend that you’re drinking buddies with Ernest Hemingway? In “La Belle Époque,” Bedos invents a way for that to happen — like “Westworld,” with actors in place of robots — with the ulterior motive that such a service might offer real-world audiences a uniquely satisfying emotional experience if we were to follow the right kind of character.
And that it does: Where so many high-concept romantic comedies squander their one big idea, “La Belle Époque” leverages its own to remind how and why we fall in love in the first place, making Bedos’ film that once-in-a-blue-moon French offering that could, in the hands of the right distributor, score a popular success with American audiences. Building on the appeal of his well-liked debut, “Mr. & Mrs. Adelman,” the actor turned auteur imagines a customer (Daniel Auteuil) who, when given the chance, chooses not to become someone else, but to relive his most significant moment — the day he met his wife (Fanny Ardant) in a rowdy Lyon café — which he can, courtesy of a script that’s as ambitiously imagined as a Charlie Kaufman movie.
Since each of these meticulously detailed re-creations amounts to an elaborate theatrical production, “La Belle Époque” also serves as a rich homage to the pleasures of performance. After all, a god-like director must work tirelessly behind the scenes, adapting on the fly and whispering cues in his actors’ ears to make the fantasy complete. (By complete coincidence, a variation on this concept can be found in Werner Herzog’s Japanese rent-a-relative satire “Family Romance, LLC,” which premiered two days earlier in Cannes.)
In the end, the story’s custom reenactment gimmick may not even have been necessary, so well-written and executed is the personal journey that underlies it. Credit that also to Auteuil, a versatile thinking man’s actor who can handle everything from broad comedies to Michael Haneke’s “Caché.” Here, Auteuil plays Victor, a crotchety cartoonist, now in his 60s, who’s convinced that his best days are behind him. Victor abhors the modern world, with its talking cars and coffee enemas. He could do without such innovations, and would be far happier listening to records in the comfort of his own misanthropy … er, living room.
While Victor sounds like something of a stereotype on paper, that isn’t the case on screen, since Bedos’ script makes each of its characters wonderfully specific variations on a personality easily recognized from the real world. That’s especially true of his wife, Marianne, which is actually a trickier role in many respects, and one that makes excellent use of Ardant, who capitalizes on a certain meta idea: For those who fell in love with the actress in the ’80s, her character represents the assertive, sharp-tongued woman that earlier bombshell might have become. When arguments erupt between Victor and his wife, her insults are biting enough to make Armando Iannucci blush. And when she finally kicks him out, the stage is set for Victor to revisit that café, at a time when, in his words, “it wasn’t horrible being me.”
Now, this is where “La Belle Époque” essentially works its magic. There’s nothing supernatural about Bedos’ concept: Victor doesn’t knock his head and start to believe he’s a teenager again, nor is he fooled by the artifice, the way Jim Carrey’s character was in “The Truman Show.” Everything here depends on a willing suspension of disbelief — that fundamental contract of all good film and theater: To revisit May 16, 1974, Victor must ignore that he’s stepping onto a soundstage with lights hanging from trusses overhead — as bursts of nondiegetic music nudge how he’s meant to feel — and where, if he studies any of the surfaces too closely, he’s liable to find that the wallpaper is peeling.
The reason we go along with the conceit has to do with a second set of characters who are every bit as important to “La Belle Époque”: There’s the all-controlling metteur en scène, Antoine (actor-director Guillaume Canet), and his leading lady, Margot (Doria Tillier), with whom he’s having a volatile affair, presently on pause. The #MeToo movement has brought much attention and criticism to the way artistic inspiration can be problematically intertwined with — and sometimes inseparable from — off-screen relationships, and it can be icky, but instructive to watch how the narcissistic Antoine uses Victor’s reenactment to manipulate his muse.
But the women in “La Belle Époque” have minds of their own, and Margot can be every bit as vicious as Marianne in cutting her ex down to size — which, of course, makes her ideal casting to play the 45-years-earlier version of Victor’s wife in the café where he was first smitten by her independence. All the threads of Bedos’ vision come together in Tillier’s big scene, based on that moment when Victor and Marianne met, as she multi-tasks between the assignment at hand — channeling the fiery independence of Victor’s dream girl — and using that attitude to put Antoine in his place. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, staging and performance, where every third line seems to be directed at her director, who’s watching everything from behind a one-way mirror.
Though the goal may have been to remind Victor how much in awe he was of Marianne from the beginning, Margot gives such a good performance that Victor starts to develop feelings for the actress, which complicates the film’s relationships in unpredictable ways. (Antoine amusingly scrambles to create additional layers of illusion to convince Victor that Margot isn’t as amazing out of character.)
Meanwhile, as an added joke, another participant piggybacks off Victor’s reenactment to sit down with his late father, night after night, and have the conversation they never could in real life — a nice touch that shows how this service might help others as well. Until such time that such bespoke re-creations can be ordered in real life, “La Belle Époque” eloquently illustrates how movies offer a vicarious version of the same catharses: By watching others fall in love for the first time, we’re able to relive our own faded memories of how that felt and, ideally, to put our own past into perspective.