You Will Be My Son

In You Will Be My Son, the head of a winemaking estate plans to hand it all off to someone other than his son
SOME VINE MESS: The demanding Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup) schemes to ensure that his son won't take over his wine empire.

There's something sinister about the wine business. I'm not the only one who laments how the big money came in, replacing the funk and haphazard charm of the old-time Wine Country in Northern California. With the perfecting of the wine, a creepy feudalist strain emerged, visible in the manors and castles, and the vineyards sprawling from horizon to horizon.

The drily witty yet engrossing You Will Be My Son, set in France, is very attuned to that persistent feudalism: "Things pretended to change," says Franois (Patrick Chesnais), the dying right-hand man on a French estate.

The lord of a multi-million Euro vineyard is Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup, a more squashed, stern-looking version of Rutger Hauer). He's plainly an ogre, whose nastiness was refined by a long stint in Jesuit school. Admittedly, he's a virile, charming ogre, with human failings: he's disgustingly fetishistic about his 2000-Euro shoes, which he polishes with daubs of Hennessy.

We meet this impossible man in flashback: we're attending his cremation at the beginning of You Will Be My Son. The son Martin (Loran Deutsch) is bemused to learn that the old man's coffin was made of a kind of oak that his father always hated to taste in his wine.

We know de Marseul's sort: he's the kind who breaks his son's back and then sneers at him for spinelessness. Director Gilles Legrand takes a Balzac-like track—I mean in Balzac's insistence that behind every great fortune is a great crime. This lord of his estate has a ready vocabulary of rare fruits and textures to describe his wine; this mystification helps him turn his back on the unignorable fact that the rest of the world's wine is improving. The rigidity of Paul's standards disguises his narrowness of mind. He verbally slaps down someone's bid for sympathy: "Unlike you, wine has no mercy."

The crisis in his assistant Franois' health advances the plot: Franois is dying of pancreatic cancer, but his timing is bad. It's a few weeks before the harvest. Because of Franois' declining health, his son Philip returns. Philip has worked in the wine business in New Zealand and Chile. It's said he was most recently a head-man at Coppola in Napa, though he's just lost his job for leaving without giving notice.

As played by Nicolas Bridet, Philip is a head taller than de Marseul's natural son, and he's more efficient, far more inspired and certainly more arrogant. Old de Marseul gets it into his head, as he tells Philip, "The land has chosen you"—and that this choice may mean ignoring the natural line of succession of the de Marseuls.

It's impossible to imagine Deutsch's Martin becoming an ideal to put-upon sons everywhere. The actor accentuates a small chin, and a nervous, tight-pressed mouth. Martin is a recreational runner who keeps crossing his dapper father's path while wearing short pants and Nikes, so that he looks like a schoolboy in disgrace. Like wine, sometimes You Will Be My Son is lacking in the mercy department, and Martin almost comes off as a twerp: when he's torn apart, James Dean-style, he drinks, snarls and then forgets about it. This weakling quality doesn't interfere with the drama; rather, it colors the predicament.

The last third is a letdown; we wanted a grander comeuppance for the wine-making tyrant. We've finally had it when he's made a Chevalier, insults Martin in the newspaper and celebrates his various misdeeds with a purchase of new 3000-Euro shoes: "Available in Cabernet, Merlot and Gamay," murmurs the salesman at Herms.

The film amuses with its tart, sardonic incidents. These include the parrying of the frequent dickwielding by Martin's good-looking yet acrid wife Alice (Anne Marivin) whom everyone tries to push around. You Will Be My Son is studded with sharp throwaway lines, as when a doctor in a Bordeaux hospital turns down a drink: "Rarely on duty, and never in a cafeteria glass."

You Will Be My Son

102 MIN; R

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