Vincent Samarco in Belle Vie (Photos: Forte Pictures)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Marcus Mizelle
STARS Vincent Samarco, Ornella Samarco

Belle Vie is French for “beautiful life.” It’s also the name of the restaurant at the center of the documentary Belle Vie. What it is not is a reflection of the tragedy that snakes through this nonfiction piece. There’s nothing beautiful about the manner in which COVID-19 destroyed businesses and communities. Yet what’s notable about Belle Vie is that it’s not the 24/7 downer one might expect from a pandemic picture. It manages to be both rueful and hopeful, which is also a perfect reflection of the individual who owns the restaurant.

A French immigrant, Vincent Samarco arrived in Los Angeles in 2016 with dreams of opening his own Parisian bistro. The spot he found was lodged between a busy McDonald’s and a busy KFC — “they feed you crappy meat and put cardboard into your fries,” he dismissively states — so success was anything but guaranteed. Yet alongside his wife Ornella and a few friends, he not only gets the business off the ground but turns it into an active hotspot. The food shown in the film looks delicious (and also expensive), but Vincent isn’t just about satisfying culinary itches. He’s a strong believer in community and camaraderie, and folks would gather at his establishment for music, conversation, and more.

Belle Vie … and McDonald’s

When the film’s timeline reaches 2020, we know what happens next. From a business standpoint, COVID was devastating for many people, but restaurateurs were hit especially hard. The chains could survive and thrive, but independently owned eateries were facing financial doom.

California’s strict (and sensible) mask mandate meant Vincent had to rely on takeout orders to generate any kind of income. But delicate French cuisine such as his relies on being eaten at a table right away, not shoved into a bag that might not be opened until a whole hour later. When the mandate eased a tad, Vincent added an outdoor area for diners, but the subsequent retightening of regulations due to the spike meant that even that costly idea ultimately went belly-up.

So does Belle Vie survive the pandemic, or has it been shuttered? That answer is eventually revealed, but in the meantime, director Marcus Mizelle spends practically every minute of the film’s running time tagging along with Vincent as the latter tries to come up with ideas on how to save his restaurant. Along the way, Vincent spends time chatting with friends and family members, and not once does he come across as anything but a strong worker, an intelligent businessman, a charming and (usually) cheerful chap, and an all-around good guy. The pandemic brought out the worst in a lot of people, but not Vincent Samarco. Like a tasty French soufflé, he was able to rise to the occasion in impressive fashion.

(Belle Vie is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and other streaming platforms.)

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