Gilles Le­grand’s pas­sion for wine in­spired his tense fam­ily drama of fa­ther-son con­flict, he tells Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - You Will Be My Son

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

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