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There are two things that the French not only love but also take very seriously: their films and their vino. So it is something of a surprise to realize that there aren’t actually all that many films set in the world of French wines. It has only been about 16 months since Saint Amour premiered, a French Sideways of sorts in which Gerard Depardieu went on an unsteady road trip from one wine region to the next, but before that, we have to go back all the way to 2011 to uncork You’ll Be My Son, with A Prophet’s Niels Arestrup, to find a mainstream-oriented story set among the vines.
So the arrival of Back to Burgundy (Ce qui nous lie), the latest film from writer-director Cedric Klapisch (L’Auberge espagnole, Paris), is a welcome one. This story of sibling camaraderie and familial strife at a Burgundy winery unfolds against the backdrop of reliably picturesque views, with its bouquet of largely familiar elements presented with a modern finish that is certain to go down well both at home and abroad, despite some uneven notes. It premiered at the Sydney Film Festival this week and hit French screens June 14.
Jean (Pio Marmai) is an apparently laid-back guy in his mid-thirties who shows up at the family domaine after a 10-year absence during which he traveled the world, met a woman, had a child and set up his own winery in Australia. The reason he’s now back, or so he explains in an unnecessary and occasionally faux-poetic voiceover, is that his father (Eric Caravaca, mostly seen in flashbacks) has fallen ill, so the man he escaped from 10 years ago is now responsible for bringing Jean home.
Still at the family winery is his insecure younger sister, Juliette (Ana Girardot), who has unofficially taken over the reins after their father was hospitalized just before the harvest. She gets help from Dad’s loyal accomplice of many years, Marcel (Jean-Marc Roulot, an actual winemaker who provided input on the script), as well as the clan’s youngest, Jeremie (Francois Civil), who has married into one of the region’s more prominent winemaking families. This means Jeremie doesn’t live at home anymore but on the more grandiosely conceived property of his imperious father-in-law, Anselme (Jean-Marie Winling), who, in a subplot that seems to have been directly modeled on You’ll Be My Son’s main storyline, isn’t convinced that the wet-behind-the-ears Jeremie has what it takes to one day take over the chateau.
Klapisch’ most famous films are still the Eramus-students-through-the-years trilogy composed of L’Auberge espagnole (aka The Spanish Apartment), Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle and the Short Cuts-like drama Paris from 2008, which starred Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris and Fabrice Luchini. All of these are solid mainstream entertainments with sprawling casts, intersecting storylines and a strong sense of place (or places). They feature recognizable characters in melodramatic situations that are flecked with drawn-from-life humor as well as a sincere form of light pathos that feels earned.
Back to Burgundy is similar to those titles in many respects, with the story set in and around the family winery over the course of roughly four seasons and two harvests, with the gorgeous landscapes showcased in everything from time-lapse photography to overhead shots, drone footage and seasonal side-by-side split-screen. The individual storylines and struggles of the siblings converge after the quick, offscreen demise of their father, with the trio forced to keep the winery going, especially after they are slapped with an inheritance tax bill of over $550,000.
Klapisch doesn’t delve too deeply into administrative matters, however, preferring emotion to bureaucracy at almost every turn. Indeed, perhaps a little too much, as Burgundy is occasionally a little maudlin, with a few too many childhood flashbacks and featuring a few scenes in which the kid and adult version of a character appear in the same shot together, with them once even having a conversation.
The narrative also has some trouble carving up the screen time and drama between the siblings. Jean, the nominal protagonist since he’s granted the voice-over, struggles with the fact he has a family and business in Australia now but that he simultaneously feels guilty for having been away for a decade, during which his siblings continued to help out their father. Jeremie, who has a wife (Yamee Couture) and an infant son, also has family issues but mainly with his in-laws, though he’s also angry at Jean for not having been in touch since their mother died five years earlier. Marmai and relative newcomer Civil make the siblings come alive, even if what they go through feels very familiar.
Juliette is not very self-confident and, as a woman, the men working for her also don’t immediately grant her the authority she deserves. Without a steady relationship or child to worry about, Juliette might have the most interesting — or at least very different — journey ahead of her but, weirdly, the film affords her much less screen time than her brothers. Even when it looks like Juliette might get lucky with a loudmouthed seasonal harvester (an underused Tewfik Jallab), it is seen from the point of view of her inebriated brothers, who make mean comments about the duo’s flirtation from a safe distance. Though Klapisch has created some interesting female characters in the past, including Cecile de France’s character in the Erasmus trilogy and Karin Viard’s in My Piece of the Pie, there is none of that here and there’s only so much Girardot can do with the stick-figure outline of a woman she’s been given. Indeed, the film’s biggest weakness is that it lacks not only a three-dimensional third sibling but actually any properly developed female character at all.
As in all of Klapisch’ films, the technical aspects are all silky smooth, with the editing smoothly circumnavigating a lot of ellipses in the story and the score’s unexpected combination of that most traditionally French of instruments, the accordion, with more contemporary beats giving the proceedings a much-needed infusion of modernity.
Production companies: Ce Qui Me Meut Productions, Studiocanal
Cast: Pio Marmai, Ana Girardot, Francois Civil, Jean-Marc Roulot, Maria Valverde, Yamee Couture, Karidja Toure, Florence Pernel, Jean-Marie Winling, Tewfik Jallab, Eric Caravaca
Director: Cedric Klapisch
Screenplay: Cedric Klapisch, Santiago Amigorena, Jean-Marc Roulot
Producer: Bruno Levy
Director of photography: Alexis Kavyrchine
Production designer: Marie Cheminal
Costume designer: Anne Schotte
Editor: Anne-Sophie Bion
Music: Loik Dury, Christophe “Disco” Minck
Casting: Constance Demontoy
In French, English, Spanish
No rating, 113 minutes
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