GASPARD AS 'XAS', THE ANGEL IN A HEAVENLY VINTAGE, AKA THE VINTNER'S LUCK"The Vintner's Luck" was not so lucky
It begins as the novel by Elizabeth Knox about a humble 19th-century peasant farmer in Burgundy who aspires to make a great wine and is subsequently ennobled, enriched and tormented by a series of intense annual encounters with an angel. This film by Niki Caro is her third feature following Whale Rider
and North Country
, both of whose stars, Keisha Castle-Hughes and Charlize Theron respectively, got Oscar nominations. Not such "luck" this time, despite the title. The new film was shown in competition at Toronto (September 2009). But despite running for a while in New Zealand and opening briefly in only one Paris theater (January 2012) as The Vintner's Luck
instead of the French book title La Veine du vigneron
-- perhaps to warn the local audience the dialogue was in English -- and despite two French stars -- the film vanished from cinemas each time without a trace. In early spring 2012 it reappeared modestly clad in an American DVD, its title inexplicably changed again, this time to A Heavenly Vintage.
What happened, exactly?
Many miscalculations of language, casting, and tone. This is one of those movies about French people where they all speak English, main characters Jérémie Regnier (the vintner) and Gaspard Ulliel (the angel) with accented English, Castle-Hughes, Vera Farmiga and some others sounding like native speakers -- of the language of some other country, not France.
The casting seems haphazard. Régnier looks right, and acts okay, but is speaking the wrong language. Ditto Ullial, who not only speaks in a stilted manner -- he learned to act in English from playing the young Hannibal Lecter -- but seems at once too fey and too sexy to be an angel, though that may be intentional. The opening scene between the two is weird. When Sobran Jodeau (Régner) first encounters the chiseled-cheeked and splendidly-winged Xas (Ulliel) on a hillside, they immediately fall to conversing in their somewhat halting, polite style, quite as if nothing at all out of the ordinary were happening. It's an angel
, Sobran! Get excited! But he doesn't. Régnier shows a stolid, boring side in this movie that's not worthy of the star of some of the Dardenne brothers' most moving and powerful works, Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours
and good movies. As for Ulliel, with his exotic face and delicate manner, he used to strike a balance between sensitivity and barbarity but lately seems to oscillate mainly between young gangster or 17th-century rake. A few years ago he might have done better than Régnier in the peasant role: he played a peasant hero in the campy, forgotten Jacquou le croquant
. An angel was a bold experiment for him, and he is sexy (perhaps intended, after all) and almost hypnotic. But the encounters don't quite come off. As the baroness on whose family land Sobran develops his special wine and who becomes his lover and parter, Vera Farmiga does perhaps the strongest acting job ere, if you accept that an American lady is playing a French woman. Unfortuantely, one good performance isn't enough. As Sobran's wife Castle-Hughes is barely more than an extra for family scenes.
Magic realism isn't easy to do. For another time, Niki Caro might take a careful look at the then 102-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica
. Oliveira goes about his work with a combination of assurance and understatement whose effect is, indeed, magical. Caro lays on the physical side too hard, with her slow motion and her persistent closups of insects, earth, and sunburnt flesh. Even Gaspard's feathers are voluptuous. At the same time the very sensuous aspects of judging wine by the nose, approaching it through its fragrance, are ignored. Viewers are told that the way to taste a new vintage is to take a big gulp and spit it out. What kind of winemaker is this? It appears New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox had as rough a sense of wine and winemaking as of France. The film's mawkish and obvious message that wine reflects its maker's life which must include sorrows as well as joys ignores the subtleties of winemaking and tells us nothing about life we didn't know.
Justin Chang reviewed
this film at Toronto, calling it Caro's "least impressive vintage" and a "dreamily literal-minded adaptation" and damningly summing up that "not even Caro's earthy, sensuous filmmaking can overcome the tale's glib supernatural conceit, overstated moral lessons and overall dramatic torpor." The source novel by Elizabeth Knox sounds quite different, everything being focused on the angel. In a 1999 review
Nina Auerbach wrote that "Xas never does become a counselor, although he is, in turn, Sobran's tempter, friend, lover, child, succubus and storyteller. And he is always a haunting physical presence, draining Sobran's desire away from his wife, mistress and children, even from his thriving vineyard. In 'The Vintner's Luck,' meetings with an angel provide neither guidance nor illumination nor moral clarification: they are simply so consuming, physically and imaginatively, that they make ordinary life impossible." The earthly characters in Sobran's life, Auerbach says, are "nebulous." Caro apparently has fleshed them out. But in thus "opening up" the story she has made the whole thing more conventional and undercut the originally much more complex central relationship between angel and man.
Following the September Toronto debut, the then titled The Vintner's Luck
had releases in New Zealand (Nov. 2009) and Australia (Jan. 2010) and in France Jan. 25, 2012. DVD releases in the UK September 10, 2010 and the US April 17, 2012.