Belle époque (1992)

The sexual promiscuity evident in many Spanish films can make mainstream U.S. acceptance difficult. The more puritanical stateside sensibility demands that something must hold the passions, however tenuously, in check, lest the whole thing slide merrily into softcore porn.

Belle époque, Fernando Trueba’s unexpected 1992 Foreign Language Oscar winner understands to this desire for restraint. In particular, it appeals to that swath of middle-aged artisans who like their subtitles with Mediterranean sun, period garter belts, and heaps of glistening food glistening. It’s not so much that Oscar voters are prudes, but that American viewers have long associated sexual abandon with the need for punishment. Belle époque‘s critical success emerges from its approach to the dilemma: it keeps its sex uninhibited and safely contained in the past.

Set in 1931, the film follows Fernando (Jorge Sanz), a Republican Army deserter during the Civil War against the monarchy. By chance, he befriends an old man, Don Manolo (Fernando Fernán Gómez), at the local whorehouse. Don Manolo invites him to his lovely villa, where they share some excellent food and discussion. When it comes time for the Fernando to leave, he is stopped in his tracks by the sight of Don’s four daughters, who have come home for the summer: the recently widowed Clara (Miriam Díaz-Aroca), the sexy lesbian Violeta (Ariadna Gil), the exuberant Rocío (Maribel Verdú, of Y Tu Mamá También), and the youngest, Luz (Penélope Cruz). The plot, such as it is, is that Fernando is seduced, in turn, by all four, each with her own methods for getting around the Catholic block on their libidos.

The film’s connection to the politics driving the Spanish Civil War, with its republic-versus-democracy-versus-the-Church dynamics, is never clearly spelled out, but the winds of political change are blowing off screen, and not for good. The word reaching the villa is that freedom is on the way and the repressive Church-based monarchy will soon topple. Yet, from our vantage, these girls are hardly repressed; rather, they appear free as birds.

Manolo’s daughters, highly respectable (and desirable) by local standards, have somehow managed to mature into freethinking libertines. They may preach chastity, but are able to find an excuse to bed down with Fernando when it suits them, without feeling a shred of guilt afterwards. Oddly, the coming Republic, which promises even greater freedom, suggests that this particular party is about to end. Just why freedom from political repression should spell the end of individual liberty is a good question. But it only casts a vague shadow over the otherwise merry proceedings. When things are this good, any change is bound to be bad.

Trueba has said he wanted to make a film that people could enjoy. He also wanted to provide steamy sex without the consequences of shame, tragedy, and violence so often associated with it in movies. But if Trueba wants to restore sex to an prelapsarian purity, it’s useful to remember that with Eden comes a fall. And from this “fallen” perspective, freedom can look frightening. And so, as Belle époque provides a nostalgic vision of sexual openness, it must also provide some temporal distance, including references to its demise.

For Fernando, especially, sexual freedom is a bit of a hot potato. For in a “feminist” reversal, he is here the sexual object, and he doesn’t care for it all. This is most obvious during a local costume ball. The four girls gang up on Fernando, pin him down, and force him into a maid’s uniform. He is adored, fondled, dressed, and essentially infantilized (and feminized) by the aggressive women. Later at the party, he is seduced by Violeta, who comes dressed as a soldier. She leads him to a barn attic, where she ravishes him like a man would.

And yet, Belle époque seems headed towards a conventional happy ending for Fernando, as he plans to marry Luz, with Rocío and her fiancée joining them in a double wedding. When the bridal parties arrive at the church, they find the priest has hung himself (offscreen), because the Republic has come to power. The affianced are left without direction, until Manolo declares they should just consider themselves married and go catch their train. With the decline of the Church and rise of the Republic, the lovers find they have neither “official” sanction of their wedding vows, nor repressive authority to rebel against. Once they are, via the secular Republic, “free,” they find themselves adrift, loosed from the mores through which their actions had “meaning.”

By acknowledging pleasure’s transience, Belle époque allows us to indulge ourselves without suffering repercussions. We can enjoy vicariously the recreation of an innocent sexual past and feel no urge to return to it, for the tragedy is we would only lose it again. Innocence and freedom must end, and the dreary responsibilities of adulthood are ever lurking around the corner. Such knowledge casts such a pall over “The Beautiful Age” that it’s almost too painful to re-experience for ourselves. Far better to stay on our side of the fence, where the Garden of Eden can be safely and briefly recaptured via fantasies, dreams, and the silver screen.