Belle Vie was a Parisian bistro in downtown Los Angeles, owned and operated by Vincent Samarco and his wife, Ornella. The restaurant was well-loved in its little neighborhood, nestled amongst fast-food joints. For Vincent, it was the execution of a multi-generational family dream to move to the United States and open a restaurant. Vincent is funny, affable and down to earth. He worked his way up in other people’s kitchens, and Belle Vie gave him his chance to create a space for customers to enjoy a nice meal, a glass of wine and a good time with one another … until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Then it all kind of went to hell.
Marcus Mizelle’s documentary, Belle Vie, follows Vincent and his wife through the ordeal so many small businesses and restaurant owners experienced during that turbulent time, from the first shutdown to the second … and the third … and the fourth. All 50 states had their own way of handling the initial COVID-19 outbreak and its subsequent variants. California (in particular, Los Angeles County) ended up stricter for far longer than most. This isn’t a documentary about COVID-19 mandates and their efficacy in combating the spread of the virus. It was bad, one way or another, wherever you lived. Mizelle keeps his focus on Vincent’s personal journey through that first year of the pandemic and the steps he took to try to stay open and serve his community. Even if you didn’t own a restaurant or work in a similar business, there’s a lot of relatability to be found here.
“I don’t like politics. I don’t like war. But I like building things,” Vincent says during some footage recorded after the initial ban on indoor dining in California. He lives in the United States on a visa (his wife gains her citizenship during the movie), and running the Belle Vie also helps him stay in the country. The same goes for his chef. Their solution to the indoor dining ban is to build an entire patio for his customers in their parking lot. It’s an $800 project that would’ve cost them $10,000 to complete with a professional contractor, but that’s Vincent’s ethos: He and his crew do everything they can with the resources they have to keep pushing forward.
It only gets harder from there. Despite a slight decline in COVID case numbers during the summer of 2020, there still weren’t vaccines, and the state was still on high alert. Money spent on dining out did not rebound. Although carry-out and patio dining were options, the restaurant continued to lose money. Restaurant finances are a delicate balance, and COVID-19 threw everything out of whack for the entire industry. When the winter 2020 wave approached, California also banned outdoor dining — which served as a final nail in the coffin for the Belle Vie.
The film ends with Vincent preparing a home-cooked meal at home for his family and friends, having gone through the ordeal of bankruptcy and shuttering his dream. It’s not a happy ending, although he remains optimistic that he can return to running a similar restaurant in the future. Sometimes it feels difficult, two years out, to process what 2020 was like. Even for those of us who did not lose our livelihoods at the time, there’s a whole lot worth trying to forget — such as the rituals we developed to keep us sane or the anxiety and nervousness about catching a virus with no real protection. Watching Vincent’s journey brought back a lot of that and made it clear that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of the stories waiting to be told about that time.