You Will Be My Son (Tu Seras Mon Fils) is a film that asks the question, what does a man gain if his business career is successful, yet he is a failure at being a father? Set amidst the vineyards of Bordeaux, this French film, directed and co-written by Gilles Legrand, is a very moving work that deals with pride, jealousy and misguided love in a very sophisticated manner.
Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup) is the owner of a prestigious wine estate in the Saint Emilion district of Bordeaux. He succeeded his father many years before and takes great care in producing the finest wines, offerings that reflect his land and will be enjoyed for numerous years down the road. His son Martin (Lorant Deutsch) works at the estate, but only in a limited fashion, as he takes care of administrative duties, such as ordering barrels or hiring workers to pick the grapes. Martin is eager to handle chores in the cellar and help craft the wines, reminding his father that he has a degree in winemaking. Yet Paul will not let Martin do that, bluntly telling him, "You don't make wine in college. You need a nose, a palate. All you have is an ear."
As the grapes are ripening, Paul learns that his estate manager François Armelot (Patrick Chesnais) has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and has been given a diagnosis of only six months to live. Paul has trusted his long-time friend for years and asks him to finish what will be his last harvest. Yet François is too ill to be active for more than a short time, forcing Paul to contact François' son Philippe in America, where he is the winemaker at Coppola. Paul asks Philippe to return to Bordeaux to oversee the harvest as well as look after his ailing father and the young man agrees.
Paul is happy, as is Philippe, who is a talented winemaker. Yet Martin only feels more and more estranged from his father, as he witnesses first hand the love that should be his being directed toward Philippe. Martin becomes jealous of Philippe, while at the same time, feeling greater anger and disgust with his father. At the same time, François, who does his best to work at the estate despite his ailing condition, wonders what to make of this situation.
This is a multi-layered story about characters that we truly care about, as the screenplay by Legrand along with Laure Gasparatto and Delphine de Vigan, offers a great deal of insight not only into winemaking and the culture that surrounds it, but also looks at how tradition and success can change an individual. Much has been made of the Biblical nature of this story, with some critics relating this to the tale of the Prodigal Son. Yet, I see this as having more in common with John Steinbeck's East of Eden (a work also Biblical in nature, in part based on the story of Cain and Abel), in which a father deprived one of his sons with love, while offering nothing but praise for his other son. In Legand's film, the story is slightly different as these are not two sons, yet the themes of love and isolation are quite similar.
As Paul, Niels Arestrup delivers a beautiful performance. Elegant and poised, yet fearful and self-consumed, this is a man with numerous demons that drive him. Arestrup is more than up to the task, giving a natural and controlled performance that is always believable. He has an ease and charisma that enthrall the viewer and his work is a key to the success of his film. I first saw Arestrup in Steven Spielberg's War Horse, in which he gave a very moving performance in a small, but critical role. He is an actor that is largely unfamiliar to Americans, but I predict that we will see a lot more of his work in this country soon.
Patrick Chesnais gives the other notable performance in this film, portraying the character of the ailing François with great charm and ease. It would be easy for him to try and win us over with sympathy, yet the actor does not go that route, opting instead to find strength in his will to live and continue his work at the estate as best as possible. This is a very endearing performance about a character who balances out the selfishness of Paul with a grace and simplicity that sum up his attitude toward others.
Credit also to Yves Angelo for his excellent work of cinematography; the soft light in the vineyards as well as the dim tones of the cellar are equally accomplished.
Serious wine drinkers will love the scenes of old treasured bottles being opened and consumed, but even if you're not someone that partakes in wine, there is a message for everyone in this film. Success is more than awards and memories; success is a measure of how we lead our lives everyday.
You Will Be My Son (Tu Seras Mon Fils) opens in New York City and Los Angeles on August 16. In French, with English subtitles.