Documentary “Belle Vie”: Pandemic trip of a West LA restaurant

For the past two years, the National Restaurant Assn. estimates around 90,000 restaurants have experienced long-term closures or permanent closures due to the pandemic. Belle Vie, the charming French bistro tucked between a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a McDonald’s on a west LA stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, was one of them — but with Vincent Samarco’s disposition, you’d never recognize it.

“[I’m] ready to do whatever it takes to save the business,” Samarco said on camera in July 2020, dumping fertilizer into large wooden bins. “Look at me trying to plant some trees in an alley behind a McDonald’s.”

That scene and so many others are stitched together in a new documentary that’s a portrait of an upbeat and determined restaurateur trying anything – anything – to keep his small business afloat. Simply titled “Belle Vie,” this documentary premieres March 9 at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and offers a uniquely intimate look — seen through the lens of Samarco, his wife and his chef — of the struggles of restaurants and bars that since then hope to survive the gastronomic closure of March 2020.

Through turning points, personal loss, bankruptcy and almost constant roadblocks and bureaucracy, the Parisian never seems to lose his sense of humor. “I think if the restaurant industry doesn’t work for me, I could definitely be Santa — I mean, my beard is already starting to turn white,” Samarco says in another scene, strapping a Christmas tree to the roof of his little green truck .

Indeed, Samarco’s humor and warmth inspired filmmaker Marcus Mizelle to turn his camera on the third-generation restaurateur. The director, producer and writer was already a regular at the restaurant, where he happened to place an order for pickup in Spring 2020; He chatted with Samarco about how Belle Vie was doing, and Mizelle was halfway to the front door before the lightbulb went out. He turned and asked if he could start filming the restaurant’s progress.

“What came to mind from the storyteller’s point of view is #1, you have this wonderful protagonist – colorful, nice, wonderful – it was a no-brainer,” said the director, whose previous documentary was Something in the Water: A Kinston Basketball Story” won a Midsouth Regional Emmy Award last week. “But you also have this conflict – the pandemic – and you also have this adjustment that he was trying to move towards. This is exactly half of the hero’s journey. It just made instinctive sense.”

Samarco opened Belle Vie on August 1, 2016, renovating a 1960s restaurant on a shoestring budget; it wasn’t much, but he could afford it and he was determined to make it his own. He built a marble-topped bar and wooden cabinets for rows of French wine, placed a piano by the door, and hung an atmospheric stained-glass light fixture from the ceiling. The kitchen, run by Samarco’s long-time friend Cedric Nicolas, produced a number of French classics such as moules marinière, steak tartare, roast chicken with morel sauce and a range of specialties displayed in a quirky cursive on the blackboard. Business was good in 2019; The team had entered 2020 with optimism, unaware of what was to come.

At times, the documentary feels more like an artifact than a movie, offering a front-row seat to one of the most difficult eras in restaurant history — from Belle Vie’s early days, when only takeout was to pack a whole branzino into a small aluminum box From take-out fitting half a lemon and flipping the wine list to retail to trying to welcome diners back on-site by fitting stylish deep blue plexiglass between the stalls and Samarco building a terrace himself. (“If not, it’s bankrupt tomorrow,” he says in the film, shaking his head as he builds his patio in the alley.)

A black and white photo of two men eating outdoors at a small table in an alleyway.

Filmmaker Marcus Mizelle, left, enjoys a meal in the alley of Belle Vie with restaurateur Vincent Samarco during filming of the documentary.

(Marcus Mizelle)

Mizelle estimates that he shot between 125 and 150 hours of footage over the course of 35 days in 2020 and 2021. There are days at the restaurant, days spent shopping for supplies, days in France to visit Samarco’s family, days spent at the restaurateur’s house in LA thinking, cooking, drinking wine. The final documentary required 46 cuts to reach its now carved form, a 77-minute version; the cut, which will air March 15 on KCET, runs 58 minutes.

Fans of Samarco’s neighborhood eatery — where the walls were covered with art gifted to it by regulars and where live music poured out the doors weekly — already know the end, or at least the end for the bistro: Belle Vie was released in December 2020 permanently closed We see Samarco removing the artworks from the walls one by one, a collection that has been assembled piece by piece over the years: a client sketch of the owner behind the bar, photos of his family and friends in France. He mines his grandfather’s copper pans.

“We did it a year ago,” he says into the camera, referring to 2019.

Despite the setbacks of the past two years, Samarco has set its sights on opening another restaurant in Los Angeles, something a little different from its dimly lit bistro and something with grab-and-go food integrated into the concept from day one is. It won’t be French, he says, at least not at first. He just misses the community built and created by owning a restaurant.

“When I look at the numbers, it’s day and night as a French restaurant, which makes me very sad,” he said in an interview. Grocery costs are generally high and extremely high for a Frenchman wanting to sell scallops or duck magret. Better, he thinks, to turn to something that’s easy to transport and requires fewer ingredients, like pizza. “I want to reopen a French restaurant, I’m just too scared at the moment. I lost everything.”

But while Belle Vie the restaurant is gone, Belle Vie the documentary is just the beginning for Samarco and Mizelle. The duo plans to film a TV pilot for a food-centric travel show in France this spring, and they’ve become close over the past two years: they spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together last year, they play poker, and they chat up on numerous occasions each other week. Four hours later, on the day of Mizelle’s interview, they watched a movie together. “He’s one of my best friends now,” the filmmaker said.

Belle Vie is a state of mind, Samarco said, and restaurants aren’t going to die out; People need to connect. Even if he doesn’t open another restaurant, he still has a home kitchen to sit and cook and share with friends like Mizelle. After all, it’s a beautiful life.

After showing in Santa Barbara on March 9th and 12th, “Belle Vie” will air on KCET on March 15th and be available on demand from April 4th. updates to follow @marcusmizelle on Instagram. Documentary “Belle Vie”: Pandemic trip of a West LA restaurant

Russell Falcon

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