Back to Burgundy (Ce qui nous lie)


Juliette (Ana Girardot) is out standing in her field.

(2017) Drama (Music Box) Pio Marmaï, Ana Girardot, François Civil, Jean-Marc Roulot, Maria Valverde, Yamée Couture, Jean-Marie Winling, Florence Pernel, Éric Caravaca, Tewfik Jallab, Karidja Touré, Bruno Rafaelli, Eric Bougnon, Marina Tomé, Hervé Mahieux, Didier Dubuisson, Jean-Michel Lesoeur, Fanny Capretta, Charléne Ferès, Julie Leflaive. Directed by Cédric Klapisch

The movies have long had a love affair not just with wine but with winemaking and it’s hard not to understand why. The lifestyle is so enticing, so slow-paced and quiet that it makes a nearly pure opposite of the hectic, chaotic and often stressful life of filmmaking. Wineries are portrayed as serene and pastoral where seasons come and go with regularity and where patience and time are the keys to a really good Chablis.

Of course, when you think “wine” France must come near the top if not the top of the list. The winemaking regions of France each have their own charm; Burgundy among them. Jean (Marmaï) is from that noted region but left his home to travel the world, bored and dissatisfied with his life which his father (Bougnon) has chosen for him. Jean has since married, had a son and started a winery in Australia. However, he is called back to France when his father falls gravely ill.

There Jean greets his two siblings; Juliette (Girardot) who has been running the winery in her father’s absence, and Jerèmie (Civil) who has married into one of the region’s wealthiest families and whose overbearing father-in-law (Winling) is not at all sure that his son-in-law has what it takes to run his operation. The reunion is a bit guarded; each of the siblings have their own baggage and there is some guilt and resentment bubbling just below the surface.

When their father dies, the three children inherit the land and they must come to a decision; whether to sell the land to the father-in-law for a handsome profit, or continue to keep it in the family where it has been for generations. Juliette has been an indecisive leader who has terrific ideas but lacks the self-confidence to implement them in the face of male disrespect and scorn. Jerèmie must weather the invasive presence of his in-laws and assert himself as a man while Jean is torn between two continents. It is a hard thing to weigh an uncertain future against a certainty of financial gain.

Klapisch has a knack for finding life’s little absurdities in the midst of a more sprawling story. In most of his other films, he intertwines several stories into a cohesive whole; he doesn’t do that so much here but that doesn’t mean that he is above giving the mundane an almost epic scope. He utilizes the beautiful vistas of Burgundy in various seasons, juxtaposing the same scene in winter and summer for maximum effect. He also intertwines the childhood selves of the siblings with their adult selves, occasionally having them interact with one another. Klapisch is marvelously inventive in this way without coming off as “Look, Ma, I’m Directing!”

The story occasionally descends into soapiness, but the characters are interesting enough and the performances strong enough to keep the film from getting maudlin. Marmaï has some definite screen appeal and though he hasn’t got a lot of movies on his resume he certainly shows enormous potential. Girardot and Civil also deliver some strong performances but Marmaï is the one you’ll remember.

The movie has a strong sentimental streak and is heartwarming throughout. Cubicle cowboys in the readership may opt to chuck their office existence and go find a French winery to settle down in after seeing this but then again, it isn’t hard to sell a rustic lifestyle to those who lead stressful lives. This was definitely one of the highlights at this year’s Florida Film Festival and for those who missed it, I recommend very strongly to keep an eye out for it on VOD. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Klapisch always seems to find life’s little absurdities. The cinematography is breathtaking. Marmaï is a charming lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The film mines some “Lifetime Movie of the Week” territory.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Klapisch makes a cameo appearance as one of the volunteer farm workers near the end of the film receiving instructions on how to harvest the grapes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Most Unknown

decanted. a winemaker’s journey


The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

(2016) Documentary (Digital Cave) Steve Reynolds, Mike Martin, Julien Fayard, Anthony Bell, Heidi Barrett, Phillippe Melka, Arturo Irucuto, Aaron Pott, Michael Scholz, Andy Wilcox, Alex Mossman, Fred Schwartz. Directed by Nick Kovacic

First off, for the sake of complete honesty, I lived a good portion of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent many lovely days in the Napa Valley. A good friend of mine had a bed and breakfast there (the beautiful Country Garden Inn which she is sadly no longer connected with) and like many of those who live in the Valley, knew everyone (Napa is notorious for having a community in which everyone is at least on an acquaintance basis). I got to know several of the vineyards and even a few of the vintners (ah, V. Sattui, home of the amazing Gamay Rouge).

Wine has always been part of the civilized world. Something about a good glass of wine relaxes the soul and allows for contemplation. No other beverage on Earth is so analyzed, so beloved. Wine is the subject of rapturous prose and prosaic discussion. We can endlessly contemplate the difference between wines from one region with another, one varietal with another and never say all that there is to be said. Wine is a bit of madness mixed in with the civility.

When you think of American wine, you largely are thinking of California’s Napa Valley. Although it only produces about 3% of American wine, the Mediterranean-like climate and volcanic soil produce some of the best wines on Earth. A whopping 95% of the wineries are family owned – only recently have beer brewers joined that party with the advent of craft beers. Napa/Sonoma has always been on the forefront of that.

But what makes a wine great? Now there’s a subject for discussion – everyone has different ideas about that. How a wine gets from grape to glass is another. This is ostensibly a look at that process as we watch the seasons change in Napa from harvest to harvest. While this film mainly centers on a start-up, Italics Winery started by Texan Mike Martin and managed by Steve Reynolds of the Reynolds Family Winery, we also get commentary from Napa legend Helen Barrett who is an expert on blending wines that lead to bottles that retail for $1500 apiece to French immigrants Julien Fayard and Phillippe Melka as well as vintner Anthony Bell.

However the emphasis is on the charismatic Reynolds as he works to get Italics underway from the ground up. It’s not an easy venture and there are many parts and pieces that have to be in place; storage of the barrels has to be climate controlled and cool and there has to be enough of it to fit plenty of barrels but as they are digging a cave for barrel storage, the work is slow and not done by the time the grapes are harvested and pressed into what will eventually become wine.

We get a sense that the people portrayed here love what they do – there’s no doubting that. We also get a sense that the work is hard and unending. Sometimes we get a picture in our heads that Napa winemakers spend their days sipping chardonnays, eating amazing friends and having parties but the fact is that more time is spent in the fields, checking on the grapes to make sure that they are growing properly and not being affected by insects or disease, checking on the barrels to make sure the wine is fermenting properly and working in the labs to make sure that the blends are just right.

In fact, winemakers judging from the documentary spend a surprising amount of time in the laboratory and utilize a surprising amount of technology, examining their soil with infrared sensors, and utilizing various programs that help them determine which soil is best for which grape. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense; Napa Valley is close to another kind of valley – Silicon Valley. You would figure that some of the tech geniuses in that valley would turn their attention to Napa.

But much of the work is done by hand by humans and utilizing methods that go back hundreds of years, even thousands. There’s a continuity to winemaking that you don’t get in almost any other profession; even the blending is largely done by hand with a human being tasting various combinations until the right one is found. It is arduous work but at the end of the day, soul satisfying and you get that these winemakers get that satisfaction.

The big problem with the movie is that we only get a sense of things – the filmmakers tend to skip over a lot of detail (which I imagine they thought would be somewhat boring to the viewer) and we get mainly highlights. There are some truly beautiful images here – Matthew Riggieri and Nate Pesce are to be commended – but there is also a tendency to overuse fast-motion photography to denote the passage of time. Once or twice is fine but especially towards the end of the movie it becomes a bit tedious. In any case, I would rather the filmmakers given us a little more “nuts and bolts.” They certainly had plenty of time – the run time is only 82 minutes so there was certainly room to pad things a bit with more information. They had an opportunity to demystify and educate and chose not to take it. That’s a shame.

But the cinematography brought back many pleasant memories of lazy days hopping from winery to winery and I’ll admit that colors my perception here just a tad. There is a beauty in winemaking that for wine lovers – and I’ll admit I’m not so much a connoisseur so much as an admirer – is part of the overall enjoyment. I will say that wine is a highly social beverage; some of my best memories are friends and family, sipping glasses of wine around a table or a tasting room.

This likely won’t heighten your understanding of wine any, but it will give you more a sense of the pride and the joy of the people who make it. As such it fills a niche in wine documentaries that perhaps could use further exploration, but I was quite happy to enjoy what was delivered here. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a glass of Merlot with my name on it.

REASONS TO GO: The beautiful surroundings and the hard work involved are both well-captured. You get a sense that these people truly love what they do.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable viewing for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: SOMM
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Kill It

White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)


The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)

You could say this is a real barnburner.

(Sony Classics) Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Ursina Lardi, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Susanne Lothar, Rainier Bock, Branko Samarovski, Ernst Jacobi (voice), Eddie Grahl, Fion Mutert. Directed by Michael Haneke

What is evil? Is evil something demonic, deep in the bowels of the Earth, dead set on world domination? Or is it something less flamboyant, something to be found in small, petty cruelties that escalate over time?

Our film is narrated by a schoolteacher (Jacobi) who was present for these events which took place many years earlier. He is an old man now and he intends to be as objective as he can be; he only narrates what he knows to be true and what he has heard from reliable sources.

The world was a simpler place then. The schoolteacher (Friedel) teaches, the pastor (Klaussner) tends to his flock, the midwife (Lothar) delivers babies and over all, the Baron (Tukur) presides. He provides employment for half the village and the other half depends on his largesse to survive. It is a patriarchal, rigid society, not unlike many others throughout the world the year before the Great War but the villagers exist comforted that they know their place in the order of things.

The students at the school are led by the pastor’s children, Klara (Dragus) and Martin (Proxauf) who are outwardly courteous and well-mannered. Those manners have come at a great cost, as they suffer terrifying disciplines at the hands of their father.

It all begins with an accident. The village doctor (Bock), out for a horseback ride, is injured when his horse trips. It could have happened to anyone…but in fact the “accident” was caused by a trip wire strategically placed. The doctor is taken to the hospital to recuperate and his children are cared for by the midwife, who has children with mental retardation of her own, including a sweet-natured son named Karli (Grahl).

That accident is soon overshadowed by another when the wife of a tenant farmer (Samarovski) falls through rotting floors in the sawmill duty she had been assigned and plunges to her death. Her son blames the Baron for this and is enraged that his father won’t seek justice against him. He takes matters into his own hands and during a harvest festival, destroys the Baron’s prized cabbage crop, horrifying the Baroness (Lardi). The schoolteacher, in the meanwhile, has taken a liking to the Baroness’ nanny Eva (Benesch).

After the harvest festival, things go from bad to worse. The Baron’s young son Sigi (Mutert) is kidnapped and tortured. He is unable or unwilling to say who did those horrifying things to him. The Baroness takes the children to Italy, giving Eva the sack in light of the events even though Sigi was not her charge. Tearful, she shows up at the school, having nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep. The schoolteacher stays up the night with her, playing songs on the harmonium for her before taking her back to her family in another village close to the one he himself was born in.

Events begin to escalate. A barn burns. The police begin to put pressure on the villagers to find out who’s responsible for these events, and still no culprit is found. When Karli is found horribly mutilated and blinded, the village turns into a powder keg waiting to blow, and the clouds of war loom ominously on the horizon.

Haneke is one of the most brilliant European directors you’ve never heard of. Although his last film was the forgettable Hollywood remake of his own Funny Games, his previous film to that, Cache (Hidden) was a tour de force. As in that film, the identity of the evildoer is less important than the evil that is done. This is a recurring theme in Haneke’s films.

The depiction of rural German village life is fascinating and feels authentic. At the beginning of the movie, everything is ordered and everyone has their role. There is a certainty in knowing who you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to do. As the events begin to unfold, that order begins to crumble and things fall apart; that certainty becomes as much a victim of the events as any who are directly injured by them.

That the movie was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film for this years Oscars is not surprising to me, nor that it is considered by many as of this writing to be the front-runner to win it. A great deal of thought went into the making of this movie, from the actors involved to the cinematography to how the script is translated onscreen. You can sense the care in every frame and everything seems to be note-perfect. The use of black and white not only intensifies the mood of vague dread and unsettling fear, but also helps set the time and place much better than color would. The broad vistas of the German heartland are also beautifully shot; because the film was shot digitally they were able to edit out all traces of modern life and create a milieu that is completely authentic.

The acting is also worth noting. For a film in which children play a critical role, the filmmakers needed to cast some very talented juvenile actors and so they did. There is naturalness to their performances, and not a hint of artifice. You don’t get a sense that they’re acting so much as becoming their characters. They act exactly as you would expect children of that era to act.

The adult actors do very well also and Friedel possesses the charm of a German Hugh Grant, modest and self-deprecating but with a hint of bumbling, yet still charming nonetheless. He is, in many ways, the least compelling of all the characters in the movie but it is Friedel’s performance that I remember the most vividly. That should tell you something.

You will notice that few of the characters have names. Most of them are identified by their role within the village, including the schoolteacher but also the pastor, the farmer and the steward. I believe that’s meant to convey that these characters are interchangeable for those in any village. I found it telling that only the children have names in this movie; read into that what you will.

The pacing of the movie is glacial and plodding at times; at two and a half hours the run time may be a bit long for some, particularly those who aren’t fond of subtitles or black and white films. Those who are patient will be rewarded with some stunning imagery and one of the most thought-provoking movies you will see this year. Violence begets violence, brutality begets brutality and evil begets more evil. As you watch this small village unravel keep in mind the old adage that your sins will find you out, and never in the way you expect them to. The White Ribbon isn’t just about the loss of innocence; it’s about its inevitable end.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling examination of brutality and evil. An authentic look at village life in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century. Naturalistic performances highlight a generally well-acted movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the long side and plods at times. The tone may be overly dark for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing imagery of violence and sexuality, definitely not suitable for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was initially filmed in color, and then changed to black and white in post-production.

HOME OR THEATER: The intimate atmosphere and black and white imagery work perfectly well on the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Elegy