Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 22, 2018 12:19 pm 
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Smooth wine, rough decisions

Cédric Klapisch is best known for his "Auberge Espagnole" series. They're films centered on a lively group of international pals who first meet as students in the Erasmus program in Barcelona and then recombine in two subsequent films as they grow up, marry, and have affairs, careers and adventures. These films are enjoyable mainstream French entertainment. They're helped considerably by the recurrent appearances of French charmers like Audrey Tautou, Romain Duris, and Cécile de France, and two English ones, Kelly Reilly and Kevin Bishop. In Back to Burgundy, Klapisch has a different starting point: a place and a process central to French culture. Wine! Alas, this movie isn't as satisfying as Auberge Espagnole, nor are its characters as vivid. It goes down pretty easy, though.

The director befriended a winemaker called Jean-Marc Roulot, whose world, understandably, fascinated him. Really, is there anything the French do better? After repeated visits Klapish gave in to temptation and did what filmmakers do: he made a film out of the world he had discovered. He cast Roulot as Marcel, a winery manager, and built up a movie around a family with a domaine like his. The scenes of Ce qui nous lie ("What links us," the French title, also a jeu de mots on "la lie du vin," which means the sediment) are shot among the vines, picking grapes, or in the winery, or in houses within sight of the fields nearby. All is soaked in physicality. The screen is filled with green, purple, and red, as well as the delicate yellow of the most heavenly of all wines, the queen of chardonnays, white burgundy. What wine lover is not moved by the mere sound of names like Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, or Meursault ? We see grapes ripen and get picked and turned into an interesting wine. The details of oenology are kept simple, but the settings are authentic, and we learn some essential details about the process.

The film is rather less successful with the storyline concerning its main characters. Perhaps the filmmakers were too distracted by the admittedly fascinating winemaking process and environment, maybe even befuddled by drinking too much of the local product. It's made a point of that this family's tradition is to swallow their wine when they're tasting it instead of spitting it out as is usually the custom; perhaps they took this advice themselves. Simply observing the seasons, and the way the process moves with them, and with the weather, slows things down. This harmony with nature to make a product to be long savored is enjoyable to watch and pleasant to contemplate - for a while. Then one senses that the grape is overshadowing the people, and one becomes impatient.

The focus is on three siblings of a burgundian winemaking family, and at outset takes us to Jean (Pio Marmaï), its elder, prodigal son, just returned after a ten-year absence wandering the world. He has left behind in Australia a young son, a wife met originally in Spain, and a winery he has started. When will he return to them? He seems uncertain. He is back because his father, whom he may have left to escape, is now deathly ill. Strangely, we never see his father's face except in ethereal flashbacks. Jean's meeting with Jérémie (François Civil, a hunk seen in the French TV series "Dix pour cent", which Klapisch directed the first episodes of), is explosive. Jean didn't even respond when informed of their mother's death five years earlier. (His son was in the process of being born, it turns out.)

Things are calmed down by Juliette (Ana Girardot), Jérémie and Jean's sister. She needs their cooperation. She is saddled with running the domaine now. Jérémie, despite his strapping appearance, is a bit of a milquetoast, cowed by Anselme (Jean-Marie Winling, of Honoré's Love Songs), scion of a more posh and distinguished nearby producer, whose daughter Océane (Yamée Couture) he has married. This family allows Jérémie neither privacy nor self esteem. When Anselme tells Jérémie that he lacks a sophisticated nose for wine and he needs to manage a spa he's starting, Jérémie is crushed, yet credulous. Jean's indecision is more complicated: it seems he cannot decide if his wife really cares about him (has there been a rift? it's a bit vague), and as he plunges into the vendage, the harvesting, he keeps putting off his return to Australia - for months. He flirts with a pretty grape picker (Karidja Touré of Céline Sciamma's Girlhood, wasted here). but that is just a feeble red herring.

The film is more confident as it plunges into the winemaking process and the three siblings dive in. The grapes are ripening, and must be picked. What day they are picked is crucial in determining the character of the wine, as is what percentage of the stems (removed by machine) is extracted. These choices decide the softness or edge of the wine, whether it will be soon drinkable but without deep character or long aging potential, or have an edge of acidity that will give it distinction and long life. Juliette must force herself to be firm about her choice. She falters at the task of being bossy with the temporary employees who pick the grapes. Is she up to this job?

"You like wine?" asks Jean. "Then you make wine!" They laugh, acknowledging it's a silly conversation. It is, and the film is content with shortcuts like this. Meanwhile Jean is often talking on the phone in French and English to his Spanish wife Alicia (María Valverde), in Australia, stalling for time.

Thanks to Roulot and scenes shot with real local people over the period of a year, following through the seasons of grape harvesting and winemaking, the viticultural atmosphere could not be more vivid and authentic. Klapisch has a gift for celebrating the energy of life. But this family and their relations remain sketchy, the individual members indecisive, each of the three siblings floundering somehow. A difficulty for the viewer is that the three women in the cast look rather alike; as confirmation, the IMDb listing confuses Océane with Alicia. We wonder if we're ever going to see Alicia, till she suddenly appears.

But the big problem - could it be the real theme? - is one endemic in French wine country, it seems: the way the French government's stiff inheritance taxes are devastating viticultural families and estates. With the father's death, the estate the siblings share owes €500,000 in taxes, and they have no savings to pay them . They must sell all, which would net them €6 million, or part: the house, which no one specially wants, or parts of the domaine, which none of them wants to give up. It often happens these days that French wine properties are forced to break up to pay inheritance taxes. As if the simplifying effects and excessive influence of the American wine writer Robert Parker, described in Jonathan Nossiter's scathing documentary Mondovino, were not bad enough.

Is Juliette going to gain the strength to run the domaine? Will Jérémie ever stand up to his snotty father-in-law? Will Jean decide where his true home and family are? Is his winery just running itself in Australia? And how will the three of them deal with the tax issue? These are not only knotty problems but underwritten elements of the screenplay penned by Klapisch and his occasional cowriter Santiago Amigorena, who seem to have proven unequal to the film's complicated real-life issues.

It seems, in the event, the three siblings produce a good vintage. Juliette asserts herself. Jérémie doesn't develop a good wine memory, but he does get out from under the thumb of the self-important Anselme. Jean makes a decision. What happens about the taxes never became quite clear to me - don't they just dodge those things over there? The trouble is, there is far more joy in the process than in the outcome, and this is a movie that needed more aging in bottle. Savor it now for its freshness and drinkability, but you will know that something is lacking that the great films have, the ones made to last.

Back to Burgundy/Ce qui nous lie, 113 mins., appeared only in a small smattering of festivals, opening in French cinemas in 14 Jun. 2017 (AlloCiné press rating a mediocre 3.2; but viewers give it a 4.0 ). Metacritic rating 44%. The US theatrical release by Music Box Films begins in New York (Angelika Film Center) and San Francisco (Vogue Theater) on Fri., Mar. 23.

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