Opening, as a text caption reveals, in Los Angeles, California, Belle Vie reveals a house under an idyllic blue sky, and inside, a man spooling and playing a reel-to-reel tape of an upbeat jazz number. With its organ and accordion, the piece is obviously as French as the film’s title, marking a cross-cultural, trans-Atlantic dialogue that will come to pervade Marcus Mizelle’s documentary. Yet there is another element to this conversation. For before Vincent Samarco can get the tape playing, we hear the muted voice of a reporter announcing, “A dangerous virus is spreading rapidly in China, and US officials are very worried that it could come here.” Vincent may drown out this ominous news with his breezy music, but as the film will show, one man’s cheerful optimism is not enough to keep pandemic realities at bay.
“I have a restaurant, I’m happy, so life is beautiful – Belle Vie,” says Vincent, explaining the name of his establishment (and the title of the film). Vincent is a third-generation restaurateur, and much as his grandfather moved from Greece to Paris where he ran a restaurant for half a century, Vincent moved to America seven years ago, and opened Belle Vie in 2016, bringing over friend and colleague Cedric Nicolas from Paris to be his chef. Nestled improbably between a McDonalds and a KFC, Belle Vue is a little haven of French cuisine and ambiance, to which Vincent has gradually attracted a regular clientèle who seek an independent alternative to the bland corporate offerings all around. A lover of good wine, good food and good company, Vincent is the embodiment of a bon vivant, and proves an infectious study for Mizelle. Yet if, with a thriving business that just happens to reflect perfectly his outlook on life, Vincent is at his peak, we know from the outset that Covid is coming to chip away at his joie de vivre. For the spirit of sociability that drives both Vincent and his eatery has no place during a pandemic that requires people to stay apart.
Mizelle tracks Vincent closely over the course of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, as the restaurateur struggles to accommodate social distancing laws and to keep his business afloat during a succession of lockdowns – and while he is nimble and adapts Belle Vie fast to changing circumstances, he is also, with the inevitable reduction in customer footfall, constantly haemorrhaging profitability and incurring debt, with the threat of bankruptcy looming no less than Covid. The stakes here are high, for Vincent and Cedric risk losing not only all that they have worked for, but also their very right to stay in the USA.
With his hands-on, can-do attitude, his seemingly boundless energy, his hard-working ethos and his dogged pursuit of happiness, Vincent incarnates the American dream of self-made success – and Belle Vue certainly celebrates his agile entrepreneurialism. Yet as Vincent’s options narrow, and as this apolitical, modestly ambitious migrant who professes to “like building stuff” sees all that he actually has built being destroyed by both disease and incompetent governance (there’s a telling cutaway to Trump calling Coronavirus “the new hoax”), Belle Vue assumes a decidedly bittersweet flavour. For if the American dream is typically the myth of a “little guy” making his fortune through sheer grit and determination (and against all odds), this is more a narrative of loss, with the charismatic underdog finding himself outlasted and outdone by his local corporate neighbours. It is an outsider’s view of what is great – and not so great – about America, and ends back in the house where it began, the house which Vincent shares with his Russian-born partner Ornella, showcasing the virtues, values and beautiful vitality that the couple brings, on a small, intimate scale, to their adopted country.
strap: Marcus Mizelle’s LA-set documentary tracks a migrant restaurateur’s trials under Covid as affirmation of, and corrective to, the American dream
© Anton Bitel