"I am a rebel, an infidel, and a libertine by nature, living life like a scared old bourgeois."
A wandering soldier happens across the villa of an old painter. "You can stay here tonight, but tomorrow my four daughters will be coming home for the summer. One is a flirt, one is a lesbian, one is a young widow, and one is a virgin. All of them are very beautiful." The young soldier nods and stays for the night. When he gets a look at the daughters the next morning, he accidentally misses his train and comes back to the villa. "I will put you in the attic," the old man sighs.
Does this sound like a play on the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter? It makes for a good joke, and a better plot. Belle Époque, literally translated "Age of Beauty," is a lusty tale of life, friendship, and petty struggles that pale in comparison with the relative blessings of freedom and happiness. Set in Spain between the fall of the monarchy and the rise of fascism, Belle Époque lets history color in the dark shadows while painting the screen with joy and light.
Facts of the Case
Fernando (Jorge Sanz) is deserting from the Spanish Army because he agrees with the people he's supposed to be killing. While answering a call of nature, he is discovered by two wandering guardsmen. They cuff him and march him toward prison. The elder guard has a change of heart and sets Fernando free. Fernando lays low in a brothel, where he encounters Manolo (Fernando Fernan Gomez) drinking and playing poker with the local priest. Manolo takes an instant liking to Fernando and asks him to stay in his villa.
The next day, Fernando "accidentally" misses his train in order to get another glimpse at Manolo's lovely progeny. Manolo knows already that he has lost a friend, but gained a son-in-law. The only question is who will hit it off with Fernando? Unexpectedly, the answer is "all of them." Luz the virgin (Penélope Cruz), Rocio the flirt (Maribel Verdu), Violeta the lesbian (Ariadna Gil), and Clara the widow (Miriam Diaz-Aroca) weave their spell of womanhood around Fernando, intoxicating and maddening him at every turn. ¡Salud!
There are a lot of things that Belle Époque is not. It is not too violent, explicit, hysterical, dull, or predictable. The best way to describe the vibe is through the fable of the three bears: "this one's too hot! This one's too cold! This one's jjjuuusssttt right!" Unforced, unhurried, Belle Époque feels just right.
Achieving such effortless joie de vivre without crossing the line of sap is tricky. Many pictures have tried to achieve what Belle Époque delivers. Belle Époque succeeds where others fail because of careful intuition. The house is magnificent, sprawling and welcoming. Yet dust piles in the corners and paint chips flake off the exterior. It is neither too opulent nor too humble; it is just right. The ladies wear flamboyant dresses, but they are slightly faded and a bit dirty at the hem. The family sits down to a magnificent meal but is frequently interrupted by visitors. When Belle Époque becomes light enough, threatening to float away from the attention of the audience, a note of sorrow or strife brings it back to earth. When the mood is too somber, a beam of joy creeps in. Belle Époque is almost a fantasy in that it seems like real life with all the ducks lined up in a row. What if you hit every green light, your boss praised you for your timeliness and offered you a raise, just as the attractive woman from logistics walked by to overhear? That would be a great day wouldn't it? Belle Époque is a string of days like that.
The gloss of happiness doesn't fully cover hints of angst and tension. A nasty political undercurrent threatens freedom and life. After all, Fernando's duty as a soldier would be to haul Manolo off to the big house for his political views. People die, get sick, and cheat on each other. In addition, there is a subversive theme of religious bitterness that leads to at least one death. Belle Époque is not all sweetness and light. It acknowledges darkness, as well as the historic bookends of oppressive monarchy and violent fascism. This acknowledgement makes Belle Époque's joy seem tenuous and fleeting, like an unusually sublime crop of grapes that produce a rare wine.
Each component of the film works to achieve the storybook quality of the whole. It begins with the story. Once you catch on to the central conceit of the film, every glance and word between Fernando and the daughters takes on new significance. The plot is involved, but not overly complex. The viewer is free of the burden of anticipating clever twists and hidden agendas. You can simply sit back and appreciate the plot as it unfolds.
This ensemble of actors is formidable. In its native Spain, Belle Époque won Goyas for Best Lead Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Additionally, it was nominated for Best Lead Actor, another Best Supporting Actor, and another Best Supporting Actress. In other words, the cast does a stellar job. The men create a believable mutual respect that leads to friendship and family. The ever-shifting emotional relationship is engrossing. More engrossing is the heat radiating from the "come hither" eyes of the daughters. These liquid pools of radiance would ensnare any man. Each actress has the chops to hold down a feature film alone; together they smolder. Maribel Verdù went on to star in Y tu mamá también, Ariadna Gil in Segundo Piel. Penélope Cruz needs little introduction. For those who dislike her, behold this performance before passing judgment.
Visually and aurally, Belle Époque is charming. Lush flora is juxtaposed with bare dirt and dusty rock. The sets are not opulent, but an atmosphere of frivolity and passion permeates them. There is no edge enhancement that I could detect, colors are quite natural, and the transfer is clean. There was a certain lack of detail that I can't put my finger on…perhaps it is unfamiliarity with a non-edge enhanced image. Greens and golden-browns seem to be the predominant colors, which emphasize earthy pleasure and celebration of life. The sound quality was slightly less impressive, with occasional pops and hisses. The soundtrack did not employ the full dynamic range. However, the music is quite good and the dialogue captivating. In one memorable sequence, mother comes home from South America and greets the family with a dramatic serenade. That scene envelops you in a sonic embrace.
The liner notes tell of how Belle Époque was created over a long series of lunch meetings between the director and his two cohorts. The story is based on Fernando Trueba's relationship with a man he knew, which explains the authenticity. Fernando further enlightens us in a deeply personal commentary track, which successfully strikes a balance between scene-specific commentary and personal ruminations. The extras are not overwhelming, but do provide a penetrating glance into the thoughts and story behind Belle Époque.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why is there no foreplay in this movie? Fernando practically falls into bed with everyone, heading straight toward the main event with no ceremony. In the case of Violeta, one could argue that the extended dance wherein she is dressed as a soldier and he as a French maid served as her foreplay. I'll buy that. But the rest of them, if you stick to the evidence, must walk around in a state of perpetual readiness.
I was unconvinced by Fernando's protestations of love. He claims to love each of the daughters in turn. Forgive me, but a romp in the sack does not equal love. When he finally gets around to marrying one of them, it is hard to discern whether she is the booby prize or the true target of his deepest affections. I happen to believe that Fernando was stricken by his future bride immediately, and the rest was bravado intended to provoke his true love. But his puppy-eyed sadness and tangible frustration seem to contradict that theory. I had some trouble fully accepting the relationship as genuine.
Belle Époque took the Oscar in 1994 for best foreign film over Farewell, My Concubine. Oscars are hotly debated, but I see no reason to strip Belle Époque of the dignity of this honor. For what it sets out to accomplish, Belle Époque is wildly successful. Lusty romps may not seem as weighty as other films, but to execute them with such grace and atmosphere takes skill. If you are in need of an uplifting, effortless movie, give Belle Époque a spin.
Looking into the beguiling eyes of the accused, his honor does not have the heart to sentence them. Ms. Cruz, your performance in this effort erases his honor's pique at the shrew you portrayed in Blow. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Director Fernando Trueba
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