by Helen Barlow

In Nicolas Bedos’s La Belle Epoque, Daniel Auteuil reminds us why he remains one of France’s top stars. The actor, who turned 70 in January, has long been a reluctant interviewee, and was seated alongside his more gregarious co-star and on-screen wife, Fanny Ardant, during interviews in Cannes last year. Ardant, who is a year older, hilariously kept him in check, literally prodding him at times.

In the film, they play Victor and Marianne, whose marriage is on the rocks. So, their wealthy son pays a fortune for his father to travel back to the 1970s, when he had first met his mother. The meeting is organised by a company that painstakingly restages historical events, the brainchild of Antoine (Guillaume Canet). The only problem is that Victor falls for the gorgeous young woman playing his wife, Margot (Doria Tillier, the co-star and co-writer of Bedos’s debut film Monsieur & Madame Adelman).

La Belle Epoque focuses a lot on a more gratifying past, the way people looked, their faces,” Bedos explains. “We sense that people become alive as they explore the new technologies and Daniel expresses this with tremendous talent. It’s almost a physical metamorphosis and it’s not just make-up. Daniel grows younger and I love the times when these two lost souls come together.”

Daniel, you’ve made a great film with La Belle Epoque. But, earlier in your career you made some unforgettable classics like Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources as well as Claude Sautet’s Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter), one of my favourites. Do you think films like that aren’t being made anymore?

Daniel Auteuil: I think that we continue making great films. I don’t think things have changed. I think that in each era we make films that audiences deserve.

Are you nostalgic like your character for things in the past?

Daniel Auteuil: No, not at all. I like things that are new. I’m continually interested in things that are being made.

Is it different to be directed by a young director?

Daniel Auteuil: It’s not a question of age. This is Nicolas Bedos’s second feature. His first was extremely successful and this is more than successful. It’s perfect. The problem is not working with someone who’s younger. What is really painful is when you are with an idiot on set.

How was the atmosphere on set?

Daniel Auteuil: It was one of joyous concentration. We were impatient to be together, to act together. Even if at the end of each day we’d be sad that we were parting, we had the next day to look forward to.

Which is the belle epoque in your life?

Daniel Auteuil: The French singer Johnny Hallyday, who has unfortunately left us, sang that the right time is now. Let’s twist again!

You have all the droll lines in the film. Did you come up with them?

Daniel Auteuil: No, no, it’s all written.

What makes you laugh in life?

Daniel Auteuil: I don’t laugh a lot in life (Ardant elbows him in the ribs). I find stand-up comedians and comedians who are paid to make you laugh generally tiresome. It’s the laughter that comes from things that are unpredictable, unforeseen, what Madame Ardant calls the zany aspect.

Do you think he’s funny? It’s the delivery, the way he says things.

Fanny Ardant: Yes, he’s funny. As a human being, Daniel is very seductive, emotionally fragile and vulnerable and very sentimental. Then suddenly there’ll be a flash of “Go fuck off!”

Victor embarks on a kind of therapy. Do you find acting therapeutic?

Daniel Auteuil: No, I think not. I don’t think by acting you’re able to evolve. Acting is about exteriorising. It’s about accumulating different layers of being.

Fanny Ardant: If I hadn’t become an actress I might have gone mad!

Daniel Auteuil: And if I hadn’t become an actor, I would have been very poor. [Auteuil is one of France’s highest paid actors.]

Why is the film so good?

Daniel Auteuil: It’s an original story, it’s a strong story and it’s overwhelmingly emotional. It talks to us about life, and also about the need to keep struggling to keep love alive.

Fanny Ardant: The film confirmed something for me: that if you loved someone sometime, you will love them for all your life.

How are you coping with aging?

Daniel Auteuil: I’m not old! Experienced, not old. Life is thrilling. It’s thrilling to see that nothing changes. One thing that changed with experience is that we can go back and avoid certain dangers.

Fanny Ardant: It’s exciting, everything that leads up to death. What’s so fascinating about life is that there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. From the age of 13 you know that life is going to end some day. It’s like a play coming close to the end and you need a good ending.

Have love and sex changed since the ‘70s?

Daniel Auteuil: No, love hasn’t changed since Homer, but sex has changed.

Fanny Ardant: Things have changed in terms of sexual mores. Throughout history, we’ve swung back and forth between free love and puritanism. I think that after the staid, rigid ‘50s and ‘60s there was more freedom.

Daniel Auteuil: I think the same as Fanny. We’re from the same generation.

Fanny Ardant: After the French Revolution there was great freedom; the Renaissance was a period of sexual freedom. Then there were the Greeks and Romans.

Daniel Auteuil: Ah, those Greeks! Society’s become much more puritanical. There’s a puritanism that is born out of the hypocrisy that we see in society today, even if people flaunt things on social networks.

Fanny Ardant: Society’s become much more puritanical, rapping people over the knuckles, saying it’s wrong what they did.

How do you compare acting in comedy and drama?

Daniel Auteuil: It’s the same, the same energy.

Which movies do you watch?

Daniel Auteuil: I watch all of them. But what I watch most are old movies. I’m contradicting myself because before I said I wasn’t nostalgic, but I find modern movies go too quickly. They’re so tiresome to watch.

What is your favourite film?

Daniel Auteuil: My favourite film is Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much from 1974.

Fanny Ardant: I love Turkish, Korean and Russian films. I love to see something new, to see how people dress and eat breakfast. I like to discover new things.

This is only the second time you’ve worked together. Why has it not been more often?

Daniel Auteuil: There were past projects where we were supposed to act together, but they didn’t work out. This was really the perfect timing, the perfect script, the perfect occasion to get together. I hope it will lead to further collaborations.

The previous film was Paltoquet (1986)

Daniel Auteuil: I think we began the film, the first scene, with me stroking her buttocks. I told her, “I’m really ill at ease in this scene, I don’t know what to do.” She said, “Just pretend you’re brushing a carpet!” A couple of decades later there I was opposite Fanny arguing. I must admit that in our job, time just whizzes by. That feels like ten minutes ago.

La Belle Epoque is in cinemas from August 13, 2020


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