GRAPES OF WRATH
Gilles Legrand’s passion for wine inspired his tense family drama of father-son conflict, he tells Stephen Fitzpatrick
WHEN French filmmaker Gilles Legrand began thinking about how to create a cinematic ode to one of his country’s most enduring cultural establishments — its wine industry — he had someone particular in mind: Sean Penn. Or, to be more specific, an elderly Hal Holbrook in a Sean Penn movie.
It wasn’t that he wanted either of the American screen greats to appear in his vineyard-based saga, You Will Be My Son ( Tu Seras Mon Fils). It was simply that a scene featuring Holbrook in Penn’s 2007 drama Into the Wild was stuck in Legrand’s imagination.
That Penn-directed film tells the true story of a young Christopher McCandless who, having graduated from university with top marks, makes an ultimately tragic solo push into the Alaskan wilderness in an attempt to find himself through extreme hardship. An early scene has McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, sitting in a truck alongside Holbrook’s Ron Franz, a widower with whom the youth has been staying while he physically trains for the expedition.
Franz — unexpectedly, and at the moment of farewell — explains that he is the only child of two only children and that his line will die with him. He wants, therefore, to adopt McCandless: ‘‘ I could be, say, a grandfather,’’ he offers, hesitantly.
The look of silent refusal on McCandless’s face says everything: the old man will never see the young one again and most likely will die alone, having missed his final shot at passing on an inheritance. It’s one of the great scenes in recent cinema — Spanish actor Javier Bardem reportedly described it as ‘‘ one of the best performances I’ve ever seen’’ — and watching it gave Legrand the narrative drive for his exploration of family and inheritance.
‘‘ It was that very short but for me very strong moment, when the young man met the old man who asked if he wants to become his son, that gave me some inspiration,’’ Legrand says. ‘‘ I [always] wanted to make a movie in the vineyard, but this point [Penn’s film] was the beginning: if you choose your son, maybe you can [also] disown your own son.’’
And so the story that propels You Will Be My Son was born. Stalwart of French cinema Niels Arestrup (also seen recently in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse) plays an enormously successful winemaker, Paul de Marseul, who learns that his vineyard manager, Francois (Patrick Chesnais), has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The relationships between each of these characters and their respective sons are the key: Paul’s son Martin (Lorant Deutsch) works with him on the family estate, but is ineffectual and bumbling. Francois’s son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet) is also in the wine game but has proved himself a brilliant hand at it, having made his name in California recently.
Quickly we are propelled into the family drama: with the prospect of the ailing Francois not living long enough to see the current crop through to completion, Martin, as heir to the family estate, ought by rights to take on the management job. However at the first sign of Martin faltering, the arrogant patriarch Paul assigns the responsibility to Philippe, sidelining his own son’s ambitions.
Worse, Paul then develops a plan to legally adopt Philippe and make him the estate’s sole heir, and muscle Martin out altogether.
The story is laced with the sorts of archetypes that would sit well in a Greek tragedy. ‘‘ I feel that with this very old type of story, I can make a modern story,’’ Legrand says, ‘‘ especially in this sort of job, where you have to transfer your estate or your company or your business [to an heir].’’ Not only the estate must be transferred, but also the knowledge involved in being a master winemaker, something that is at the core of a certain conception of French identity.
The director is quick to point out that the extreme father-son conflict his tale portrays is not drawn directly from personal experience, although he concedes parent-child relationships can often involve competing ambitions. ‘‘ I am 50 years old, I have children and, like everybody, I apply pressure on them — I try not to, but I wish the best for them and I can push them in the wrong way because of too much pressure,’’ he says. In fact, Legrand suddenly says with a laugh, his own 20-year- old son has aspirations to be a filmmaker. It’s a profession the older man doesn’t necessarily want to encourage: ‘‘ It’s hard work — I think I am a very lucky man to be able to make movies. There are so many young people who want to do this.’’ On the other hand, he admits, in film, ‘‘ if we try to push different characters to the extreme, that can make a lot of conflict — and that can make a good movie. You need a lot of conflict in a good movie.’’
What you also need is cinematography that complements the drama, and here it was Legrand’s love of his country’s wine industry that came to the fore. He says he spent a year travelling through various parts of its two most famous production regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux, with a wine journalist friend to help refine his knowledge. (‘‘I drank a lot,’’ he admits.) He was after a historic chateau in which to base the film, and it had to be one with a suitably panoramic aspect.
Legrand’s 2004 work Malabar Princess was noted for the way in which it featured the French alps as a character in their own right. You Will Be My Son does something similar with the place he eventually found, the historic Clos Fourtet estate in the southeast of Bourdeaux. Sweeping shots focus on the long rows of vines with their fruit ripening in the summer sun, and hover around the ancient buildings, formerly part of a military fort used to defend the nearby town of Saint Emilion.
‘‘ Certainly with the location and the light, the job we did with the director of photography was an important one,’’ he says. ‘‘ Maybe it’s the case as with Malabar. It’s alive — and you know, wine is alive [also]. It grows in the vineyard, and then the wine in the cellar or the barrel or the bottle, it’s a living thing. That’s one of the reasons it’s one of the most successful products around the world. It comes to our senses, the flavour, the aroma and so on.
‘‘ And I love the architecture of those estates. It’s nature, but with a very strong [contribution from] humans, who put their hand on nature. I’m fascinated by this because there is a geometry in those places, and it’s a pleasure for cinematographers to be [working there].’’
He says he would have preferred a location in Burgundy, where many famous white wines as well as reds are made, to develop a key plot element in Paul’s story. Early on, there is a scene where we learn one of the old man’s best-known wines is a chardonnay made specifically for communion — and therefore, as he points out to a visiting female journalist to whom he offers a bottle, ‘‘ only to be drunk, as we all know, on your knees and hats off’’. Bordeaux, more famous for its reds, might have made that detail slightly tricky to pull off (although, to compensate, the journalist makes a point of expressing surprise at the ‘‘ Burgundy bottle’’ he’s used for the wine; he replies such a practice is indeed ‘‘ criminal’’).
Burgundy is also known for vineyards that tend to be more hands-on, as opposed to what critics see as the corporate-oriented operations of Bordeaux. Or, as Legrand puts it diplomatically: ‘‘ The Burgundy winemakers are probably more involved in the production of their wines.’’ But there proved to be nothing suitable in his preferred region, and so Clos Fourtet in Bordeaux won the gig, as did many of its workers, who play themselves.
There is plenty of exposition early on in You Will Be My Son, as with the communion wine scene, that is designed to portray Paul as quite the pig. But this also establishes him as a character who, even if he’s cold and manipulative, has intriguing qualities.
‘‘ He’s a strong man,’’ Legrand says. ‘‘ He can manage [people] not only with his authority but with his words — with his sense of humour, his personality. He’s a fascinating guy because he loves what he does. He has the passion and so he’s strong because of that.’’
Ultimately, though, the piece is all about the wine. Legrand is unashamed in his own passion for the stuff, telling a French interviewer: ‘‘ I love the vines . . . the scheduling and constraint that is required to plant them . . . I also love the cellars, [the] alignments of barrels and bottles, silent underground, the smells, materials, colours, light . . . It is simple, the vine and the wine awaken the senses!’’
Top, Niels Arestrup as winemaker patriarch Paul in his vineyard; above, Arestrup and Lorant Deutsch as his son Martin; left, Gilles Legrand