February 5, 2018
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Jorge Sanz, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Penelope Cruz.
A color-drenched period comedy about robustly healthy (i.e., not leering) sex in the physically resplendent Spanish sticks, Belle Epoque won me over in its first-run theatrical engagement for providing an hour/50 of incessant enjoyment — in other words, even before director Franco Trueba upped my good tidings by thanking Billy Wilder for inspiration when he accepted the foreign-language Oscar on 1994’s telecast.
Good man, though there aren’t a lot of obvious direct lines to Wilder’s work here — except perhaps for when impossibly lucky protagonist Fernando (Jorge Sands) finds that he really likes it hot amid a cross-dressing romp with the one of four comely sisters who happens to be gay. No worries, though, because at least during this one solitary romp on the way back from a costume party, she enjoys getting it on with him as she sports a moustache (he’s in drag as a maid). Hey, whatever works, as Tonya Harding might have said.
The year is 1931, the seeds of the coming civil war are being watered, and Fernando falls into a household of free-living republicans. Household patriarch Manolo (the late hard-working character actor Fernando Fernan Gomez) is a sex-appreciating painter who suffers from erectile dysfunction when it’s anything but afternoon delights with his wife. Unfortunately, she’s always on the international road emptying theaters with her Florence Foster Jenkins soprano act, accompanied by a smitten, money-losing manager who’s naturally distraught when she wants to romp with Manolo on her infrequent trips home. But this is getting ahead of the story.
Most of that has to do with young Fernando’s escape from the seminary and his relationship with the couple’s daughters: a young widow; the aforementioned gay one; a third who’s being pursued by possibly the No. 1 nerd in Spain (he’s mother-dominated, too). No. 4 is the baby of the bunch, though she she’s not exactly still in her diapers, given that Penelope Cruz (in one of her first movies) plays her. Eventually, Fernando works his way through the checklist, though without any guile or duplicity — both unneeded, given that the sisters aren’t exactly reserved about the situation and are, in fact, on the aggressive side. It’s a made-to-order male fantasy for someone trying to get the seminary out of his system, though let it be said that this is already a milieu in which the local priest enjoys playing cards at the best/only brothel in the village.
When I heard that Belle Epoque was coming out on Blu-ray, I immediately wondered if the color values would be rendered right because sheer visual splendor is one of the reasons the pace here never flags (along with a slew of vividly-delineated characters who keep hopping in and out of a gorgeous frame). Though distributor Olive Films (and for that matter, Raw Deal’s ClassicFlix as well) continues to exasperate me when its releases always revert back to the movie’s beginning whenever one shuts down the player for not very long, BE in high-def is very much the visual stunner that it would have to be not to disappoint, though a commentary certainly wouldn’t have been unwelcome. (I’m of the school, however, that it’s far more important to get the presentation right before we go onto to any discussions of gravy.) Trueba’s tickler had a lot of strong Oscar competition in its year: Farewell, My Concubine; Ang Lee’s The Wedding Party; The Scent of Green Papaya; and a fourth title I’ve never seen. We were still in an era when foreign-language releases could at least attract U.S. audiences a little before the dumbed-down video game culture took over.