Belle Epoque

This year's Oscar Winner for Best Foreign Language Film inspired the wittiest acceptance speech of the night, from Spanish director Fernando Trueba, 39. "I would like to believe in God so I could thank him," said Trueba, "but I just believe in Billy Wilder. So, thank you, Billy Wilder." Trueba reports that the 87-year-old director called him later and identified himself by saying, "Its God."

As the lush images of Belle Epoque unfold, you search vainly at first for the romantic skepticism that marks Wilder's work in such signature black-and-white films as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment. Trueba's scene is the paradisiacal countryside circa 1931, where an old painter, Manolo (the great Fernando Fernán Gómez), greets his four daughters just in from Madrid. Each is a beauty. Fernando, played by Jorge Sanz, certainly thinks so. The handsome soldier has just deserted the army and finds refuge with Manolo. It's a time of revolution against church and state, and Fernando is eager to throw off moral constraints.

Three of Manolo's daughters are just as eager, including Clara (Miriam Díaz-Aroca), the eldest and a widow. Trueba and screenwriter Rafael Azcona invest these women with a no-bull attitude toward seduction. Rocío (Maribel Verdú) practically jumps Fernando. And the mannishly clothed Violeta, superbly played by Ariadna Gil, gets him to dance a tango in drag (an hommage to Wilder's Some like It Hot?). Only Luz (Penelope Cruz), the youngest, refuses to join the erotic frenzy. She has a simpler plan.

Credit Trueba with keeping his lyrical, strikingly acted film alive with sensual possibilities. But it's the bittersweet realization of the limits that time and love put on freedom that holds Belle Epoque in the memory. For that, Trueba does owe a debt. Thank you, indeed, Billy Wilder.

From The Archives Issue 681: May 5, 1994