In Belle Epoque, as
Spain enters into the turbulent years of its Civil War, a young man named
Fernando (Jorge Sanz) deserts from the army and sets off to nowhere in
particular. Along the way, he is befriended by Manolo (Fernando Fernán Gómez),
an artist with four beautiful daughters (played by Miriam Díaz Aroca, Maribel
Verdú, Ariadna Gil, and Penélope Cruz). Welcomed into their home, the
sex-starved Fernando is alternately dazzled and bewildered by the attentions of
each of the women in turn.
There's certainly a lot of
potentially strong material in the era that the film is set in, at the start of
the vicious Civil War during the 1930s that would set the country against
itself and eventually install Franco as dictator. Watching the film, the viewer
is put in the position of seeing the quiet, enjoyable lives of the characters
while knowing that the country would soon be consumed with a fratricidal war.
This foreknowledge can cut in two ways: to make the simple pleasures of life
seem sweeter, more innocent, or to taint those pleasures with the knowledge
that they will soon be cut short. A film like the outstanding Butterfly
(La lengua de las mariposas) cuts right to the heart of this bittersweet
feeling, capturing both the beauty and the pain of this difficult era. Belle
Epoque, in contrast, doesn't even seem to notice that there's anything
important going on, let alone tries to deal with it.
But it's not even that Belle
Epoque simply ignores the darker side of the era in its attention to the
joys of the flesh; the film has a curiously mixed tone that suggests that it's
trying, unsuccessfully, to balance dark and light. The opening scene, for
instance, starts off as a basically slapstick routine as Fernando is detained
by a pair of Guardia Civil officers who end up disagreeing with what to do with
him, but the scene abruptly turns oddly gruesome and pathetic. What is going on
here? The film soon shifts back into "happy" mode, but late in the
story, another scene interjects the tragic into the idyllic. But these
intrusions remain just that, intrusions: undigested and unincorporated into the
overall structure of the film, they stand out as clashing tones that don't add
any thematic depth.
When we come down to business,
what is Belle Epoque about, anyway? The film meanders along, following
Fernando in a series of rather contrived incidents as he ends up getting
involved (in one way or another) with each daughter in turn. The theme of
"free love" isn't even adequately explored, if that is indeed the
theme of the film; it's interesting to see how open and free Spanish culture
was before the "dark ages" of Franco's dictatorship, but all of this
seems to happen on the surface. The various people in the film dance in and out
of the scenes, each on his or her own trajectory, rarely intersecting with any
of the others. There's no sense that anything actually matters in this film in
terms of the characters' personal relationships.
In fact, the lack of a
realistic feel permeates the film as a whole. Every scene has the feeling of a
set piece in a theatrical performance, with the other actors waiting in the
wings to step into the scene on cue. There's certainly no sense that the
characters have any life beyond what we see on the screen, and as the film
develops and new characters are introduced, such as Manolo's wife, the new
characters are further and further toward pure caricature. Even little details
are handled carelessly: we're repeatedly told that this is winter and that it's
cold out, but the characters prance around in summer dresses. Possibly the film
is intended to be a complete farce, but in that case, it's just not funny
enough... because, really, Belle Epoque doesn't have much by way of real
The transfer is presented in
its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced.
Overall, it looks good. Colors are strong and look natural, and contrast is
satisfactory as well. The print is clean, with only a few small flaws that I
saw, apart from one peculiar one: at the very top of the image, a horizontal
line runs all the way across the screen, and is visible during the entire film.
One problem with the transfer is the presence of substantial edge enhancement,
with distinct haloing effects visible in some scenes. There's also a general
lack of clarity in the middle- and longer-distance shots, and I noticed a touch
of artifacting in a few scenes.
I was pleased to note that the
English subtitles are optional.
The Spanish Dolby 2.0
soundtrack is adequate, but it doesn't really shine. Dialogue across the board
is a bit soft, and is sometimes slightly flat. The sound is focused to the
front, with no particular sense of depth. An English Dolby 2.0 dubbed track is
also provided, as are optional English subtitles, in nicely visible yellow.
The main special feature is a
director's commentary from Fernando Trueba. However, I was disappointed to find
that he does the commentary in English; while his command of English is
adequate, I imagine that he would have been able to express himself better in
his native Spanish, and the track could have been subtitled.
Trailers for All About My
Mother (Todo sobre mi madre), Sense and Sensibility, and Age
of Innocence are also included.
Somehow, Belle Epoque
won the 1993 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; I can only conclude
that there was really nothing much competing against it that year, or that the
judges were mostly male and were dazzled by seeing the female characters prance
around in their underwear. Apart from the minor interest of seeing Penélope
Cruz in an early role, there's nothing really worthwhile here. It wasn't
completely horrible, so I'll barely let it get by with a "rent it,"
but only if there's nothing much else worth checking out.