March 17, 2016
Belle Epoque – Spain, 1992
Part of me feels that I will never get Fernando Trueba’s 1992 film Belle Epoque. I first saw it back in 1993 on VHS, and my reaction to it may have been the result of my having had expectations of it being nothing short of a masterpiece. Why else, I reasoned beforehand, would it have beat one of my favorite films of all time for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film? Anytime a film has such unrealistic expectations thrust upon it, it’s bound to come up short, often to no fault of its own. And so it should not come as a shock that Belle Epoque failed to impress me the first time around. In contrast, the film it beat for the Oscar, Farewell My Concubine, has risen in stature, continuing to perplex and move with its depth and poignancy. Over the years, friends and critics have insisted that I missed just how special Belle Epoque really is, so recently, I figured it was time to see if time had softened my objections to the film.
Belle Epoque is the story of a young Spanish soldier named Fernando (Jorge Sanz) in 1931 who deserts the army and eventually finds himself living in the house of a kind old man and his four ravishingly beautiful daughters. Given this set up, the film could easily have turned into an Almodovar-like comedy, replete with incidents of bed-hopping and infidelity. And while there is some of this in the film, it remains grounded by the time in which it is set, just five years before the Spanish Civil War, which would end with Francisco taking power. In the year in which the film takes place, Spain was in the grips of a power struggle. The military collapsed, and the king abdicated the thrown. This left the Nationalists, made up of those with power and affluence, to duke it out with the Republicans, make up of the working class, for control of the country. In other words, in the film, as it was in reality, Spain is at war with itself.
And the war is everywhere. In fact, it is what brings everyone together. It is what causes Fernando to flee his unit, what brings the daughters back to their father’s home, what likely pushed the old man’s wife to take her opera singing on an overseas tour, and what occupies much of the conversations that do not revolve around love, relationships, or physcial attraction. Politics is ever-present as well. It is agued about at the dinner table; it wakes people from their slumber, forcing them out of their homes and into public meetings. It is the elephant in the room, a bond between those with like-minds, and a wedge between those on opposing sides. It brings people together just as easily as it drives them apart. Perhaps more importantly, it is a harbinger of both great joy and heartbreaking tragedy.
However, this is not the main thrust of the film. What the film mostly focuses on is young, innocent Fernando’s multiple pursuits of love, and in one of the film’s most ingenious aspects, he is often on the receiving end of such pursuits. Throughout the film, Fernando goes from being the pursuer to being the pursued in a flash, and it is a role that he is not entirely comfortable playing – although to be honest, he doesn’t protest for very long. It’s not hard to realize that the last one will turn out to be his true love, and part of the fun of the film is in seeing just who seduces whom and trying to decipher their exact motivations. It’s also fun to note that the sisters are all aware of the other’s exploits, and at times, their conversations about Fernando resemble those of schoolgirls comparing notes.
Belle Epoque is frequently humorous in a way that only a Black Comedy can be, and each character is given interesting and heartfelt monologues to deliver. My favorite of these came from the family patriarch, Don Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez), whose lines are often so clever and absurd that they could easily have appeared in a Tarantino or Woody Allen film. Also memorable is Don Manolo’s wife, Amalia (Mary Carmen Ramirez), who announces her arrival in song. Later, she has a poignant scene with her daughters which is just so lovely that I couldn’t help wishing that I were part of the conversation. The acting is top-notch, the characters so well written that audiences will likely find themselves wishing that all of them could have their dreams comes true.
So did I like the film more the second time around? The short answer is yes, yet the film still keeps me at a distance. It still seemed oddly disjointed, fluctuating madly from scenes of screwball comedy to matters of politics and death in the blink of an eye. I found myself intrigued by the subplot, with its dark humor and exaggerated, Catch-22-like moments, yet when the film turned back to Fernando and the sisters, I became less engaged. At times, I was struggling to care just who Fernando eventually wound up with and longing for just one more scene showcasing the poetic wit of Don Manolo or the philosophical meanderings of the food-obsessed town priest. An entire film could have been made with those two characters as its anchor, and I would have absolutely loved every minute of it. I simply can’t say I felt this was about Belle Epoque as a whole, and this frustrated me. I wanted to love it, to see in it the qualities that made it triumph over Kaige Chen’s masterpiece. I just didn’t, and, unfortunately, I’m beginning to see that I never will. (on DVD)
*Belle Epoque is in Spanish with English subtitles.