I picked up a copy of PJ O’Rourke’s new book ‘Modern Manners’ the other day, and smiled at his quote on the back cover bemoaning the omnipresence of smartphones. Once, he said (I’m paraphrasing here) you could sit in a bar or around a dinner table and waste countless pleasurable hours debating how many Oscars Meryl Streep has won or how many American Presidents were bachelors or how many times the Yankees won the World Series, but then, he says, ‘some fool goes and googles it’ and the fun is over.
PJ could be the model for Victor, the central character in La Belle Epoque. Victor is an affluent middle-class Frenchman struggling to adapt to life in the 21st century. He’s defiantly analogue where everyone else has gone digital. He hates the way social and family gatherings are sidetracked by stuff happening on a tiny screen. He refuses to join in when the others huddle round to watch the latest internet sensation or, like PJ O’Rourke, to get instant answers to questions that pop up in normal conversation. This is not the way life should be experienced, he believes.
His wife, the glamorous and gregarious Marianne, is becoming increasingly impatient with his grumpy old man schtick. On the way home from one such occasion she tackles him about it – we suspect not for the first time – but he just gets distracted and angry when the silken voice of the car’s navigation robot keeps interrupting to tell them where to turn and how close they are to their destination. ‘Why do we need this?’ he shouts. ‘I know how to get to my own home – I’ve been doing it for years!’
It doesn’t help that his lifelong work goes increasingly unappreciated. He’s a talented artist but his cartoons are no longer hitting the zeitgeist mark. He’s having the mother of all mid-life crises. and yearns for the good old days.
An entrepreneurial friend runs a time-travel experience that enables affluent customers to go back to their chosen time in history and immerse themselves in it: whether it be the court of the Sun King or a bar in Cuba to drink with Hemingway or the Berghof to hobnob with Hitler and his cohort, everything is meticulously re-created with historically accurate settings and an ensemble of actors drilled in the manners, costumes and speech of the era. No expense is spared to achieve the requisite authenticity; the customers have to be VERY well-heeled indeed.
So when this friend makes a gift to Victor of the experience of his choice, he opts not for some fabled episode from the distant past but for his own belle epoque, the seventies – a time of devil-may-care fun and when people talked face-to-face, flirted, danced to loud music, drank too much and smoked pot. Specifically he wants to go back to 1974, and to the particular bohemian café in Lyon where he met his wife, whom he still loves. He wants to relive and recapture the carefree joyousness of their courtship.
The details are settled, with help from his own drawings from the time, a suitable actress is cast as young Marianne, and he plays himself in the ensuing tableau vivant.
Victor and Marianne are played by two enduring veterans of French cinema: a craggy Daniel Auteil and the raven-haired Fanny Ardant, one of those actresses, like Catherine Deneuve, whose beauty seems to grow with them.
This is a time-travel story that’s not sci-fi or fantasy. It’s more your typical French rom-com: a bit funny, a bit serious, a bit sentimental. There’s a romantic sub-plot involving young Marianne and the director of this domestic extravaganza, but there are no real surprises, which is fine by me; I have a sneaky sympathy for Victor, as I do for curmudgeonly old PJ O’Rourke.