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Belle epoque is at once anarchic and conventional, comic and tragic, sentimental and sensual. The humor is always character-driven, eliciting ironic chuckles to full-blown belly laughs. After his brush with the militia, Fernando stumbles into the nearest town looking for a good whorehouse. He finds the bordello, where he also encounters the local priest A and card shark A Don Luis, and a semi-retired painter, Manolo. Manolo and the youth quickly become friends as Fernando cooks dinner in exchange for a night's lodging, and Manolo reveals the three big frustrations of his own life: not being born among heathens so that he could rebel against the church, getting passed up by the army because of flat feet so he couldn't desert, and being impotent with all women other than his wife, so he can't cheat. "I couldn't rebel against the church, the army, or matrimony, along with banking the four most reactionary institutions in the world. Here I am a rebel, an infidel, and a libertine by nature, living life like a scared old bourgeois," the wisened painter confides.
You can see the comic possibilities coming from a mile away when Manolo's four beautiful daughters arrive on the train from Madrid. After some heavy flirtations, Fernando is seduced by one after another, each in her own peculiar fashion. There's macho Violeta who's into role reversal, flirtatious Rocio who's engaged to a wealthy mama's boy, grieving Clara whose husband drowned, and ripe, virginal Luz, the only one who truly loves Fernando. Although the young lad doesn't realize it at the time, this is his belle epoque (beautiful time).
Director Fernando Trueba has, in past interviews, described Belle epoque as "the story of Paradise: too good to last." During a recent interview with New Times he elaborated on that assessment and explained the unorthodox way the idea for the story came about. "Belle epoque is an homage to a kind of movie that doesn't exist anymore. It's an attempt to recapture the atmosphere and spirit of the movies of people like Jean Renoir, movies from the past that gave me so much pleasure. [Screenplay collaborators] Rafael Azcona, Jose Luis Garcia Sanchez, and I used to have lunch together every day. We would talk about the projects we were working on. One day I had this idea for a movie that would become the basis for Belle epoque. Nobody had paid for it; there was no producer waiting for it. We started to talk about this idea. We worked on it for a year and a half, every day, in an atmosphere of jokes, laughs, friendship, and good meals. The script reflects that atmosphere."
It's hard to imagine a Trueba film being anything else. The unassuming, jeans-and-T-shirt-clad writer-director is a reformed movie critic (he served a stint in the Seventies as reviewer for Spain's leading news daily, El Pais) whose passion for the comedies of Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Woody Allen is a driving force behind his own work. "Woody Allen is the most important living director working, because Billy Wilder is still alive but not making films. Hannah and Her Sisters is a masterpiece. When I made my first film, Opera prima, I was obsessed with Annie Hall."
Belle epoque, however, has softer edges and a far less neurotic core than Allen's films. The balmy ambiance running throughout the film creates the impression that the characters' hands are being guided by a benevolent supreme being, which isn't far from the truth. "I don't try to do realistic movies, to reproduce life. With this film I just wanted to create my little oasis, a micro-world where love is not the prerequisite for sex. A garden of liberty. Not some idiot optimistic thing where life is always wonderful. You have to respect other people's ideas, feelings, and behavior. That's the thing. Life can be wonderful, if you fight for that."
And so can the movies, sometimes.
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