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Harlan Jacobson Reviews 'Back to Burgundy'

When you think of France, sure you think of cheese and berets, baguettes and love--or at least adultery--and what else? Wine. You think of the Bordeaux you can’t afford, snapped up by those pesky Russian oligarchs and Chinese financiers. Or the Rhones that are earthy, or the Rosés that, while not fine wines are runaway must-have now on the American Left and Right Coasts to augment their Mediterranean diets. A special spot in the heart of France is reserved for Burgundy, Southeast of Paris, where the French relate with a fanaticism to the Grand Cru Montrachets, Mersaults, and Chambertins the way we do to fantasy baseball. Where we might head to Spring Training in Tucson, French director Cedric Klapisch’s father made a bi-annual visit to his Burgundy connection to smell the earth, pinch the grapes, shmoos—they do that in French Yiddish, too—with the domain owner and, of course line up the cases they’d lay in to make sure the good times rouler, that’s French for roll.

I almost said roulot. That’s because French actor Jean-Marc Roulot is also a vintner of Burgundy, and while Klapisch didn’t cast Roulot in his first film in the early 90s, he became a client for his burgundy. That’s until Klapisch decided that instead of making another film about the slightly cracked but earnest young urban sophisticates of When the Cat’s Away, Family Resemblances, Paris, My Piece of the Pie and The Spanish Apartment. He was ready to make a film in Burgundy about winemakers. And so, he arranged to film a story with an early writing partner Santiago Amigorena at actor-vintner Jean-Marc Rolout’s vineyard and cast him in the film. Big win for Roulot, who plays Marcel, the hired master winemaker on a family vineyard, and who infused the script with a level of detail about the life and production cycles of wine that’s perhaps seen nowhere else except in a documentary about winemaking, Natural Resistance, by Jonathan Nossiter and produced by the writer here, Amigorena.  

Back to Burgundy is fiction and concerns three sibling Millennials, two brothers and a sister, and how they grapple with saving the family vineyard after the death of their father. It’s somewhere between a basic text for future sommeliers and wine connoisseurs and a porn flic about the process by which an actress’ pretty feet trod the terroir and then stamps the succulent grapes in the vats, as you hear each grape pop and sigh, Oh, mon Dieu, I die for you!

Okay, back to reality here, or at least the film. It helps that the three siblings are the prettiest 30-somethings in France right now—Pio Marmai as the older Jean, who returns to the farm after a 10 year self-exile that ended in Australia on a vineyard with a wife and son, Francois Civil as the baby brother, Jeremie, the dutiful but less talented son and young family man who has married into a more prominent wine family, and Ana Girardot as Juliette, the middle sister, whose taste buds and instincts--shown in the story all the way back to childhood--make her the natural master winemaker, heralding a timely nod to feminism come to France. 

Now listen up: In this clip, first we’ll hear Pio Marmai as Jean explain--in French, of course-- to a beautiful African grape harvester that he’s travelled the world but now he’s come home. That’s followed by Ana Girardot as Juliette addressing the entire crew that this is a special year, the first harvest without their father. And then it ends in La Paulée, the party that celebrates the end of the harvest, and is the only party outside of the one Stanley Kubrick filmed in Eyes Wide Shut that I’m truly sorry I missed.  

In all this filmed beauty by the 56-year-old Klapisch—who worked as a waiter in a French restaurant while he studied film at NYU in the mid 80s—there’s a small gap. The story’s central problem—how to pay the inheritance tax—is sort of spat out like a rogue grape skin. I guess that’s forgivable, because Back to Burgundy is a fantasy set in the four seasons of beautiful wine country, with pretty people fighting to save the vision of Old France and the French standards that make France France. The original French title is “Ce qui nous lie.” What Binds Us. That’s not only a topic that has been on the minds of French filmmakers for the last two decades, in such masterpiece films as Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours of 2009—but the French electorate itself. How you come out on such issues that are the sharp notes just below the surface of the enjoyable Back to Burgundy can drive you to drink. 

A glass of Gevry Chambertin, s’il vous plait.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.