I’m in a mood for foreign-language cinema, so I’ve watched this charming Spanish film (and Oscar winner in 1993 for Best Foreign Language Film) with very young Penélope Cruz.
Though the name Belle Epoque traditionally refers to the period between the end of Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, here it refers to a more small-scale and personal belle period. In 1931, a young Spanish soldier named Fernando deserts the army and, after roaming the countryside for a while, befriends Manolo, an old artist. Manolo lives all by himself in his shabby cute villa and doesn’t care if his visitor is a deserter; a rebel by nature, he laments the fact that he’s got nothing to rebel about. When it’s time for Fernando to move on, Manolo takes him to the station, where a train from Madrid brings Manolo’s four daughters for a visit. As Fernando’s jaw drops further at the sight of four young beautiful women emerging from the carriage one by one, it’s obvious that he’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Under Manolo’s benevolent and understanding gaze, Fernando falls for one daughter and then another, with each holding a different appeal. It must be said though that the film pleasingly concentrates just as much on each woman’s individual wants and needs. For Clara, recently widowed, Fernando is a way of outgrowing her tragedy and feeling passion again; for spirited and coquettish Rocio, Fernando is a distraction from the endless drama with her on-again, off-again fiance with an overbearing mother; for earnest and innocent Luz, the youngest daughter, he is her first love. The most intriguing one is Violeta, who’s clearly a lesbian but is attracted to Fernando when the daughters, in a moment of mischief, dress him up as a woman for a local carnival. The most memorable scene in the movie is when Violeta, dressed as a soldier with fake moustache, courts Fernando at the carnival as a man would, dances a tango with him as a man would, then takes him up to a hayloft and ravishes him as a man would. Fernando, who initially resents his dress-up and passive role, is totally into it.
Though it begins and finishes with death, and ultimately acknowledges the transient nature of all good things, Belle Epoque is a playful and light-hearted celebration of human beauty, sensuality, free spirit, gorgeous rural landscape and good food. Penélope Cruz, who plays Luz, has a much smaller part than the DVD cover suggests, but she’s vibrant and appealing.