Cédric Klapisch’s Back to Burgundy is a family drama. Jean returns to his family’s vineyard in Burgundy after a ten year absence prompted mainly by a strained relationship with his father, who is near death on his return. His arrival sets of tensions with his younger sister and brother, with the sibling tensions setting off others in an extended family chain.
The main plot driver is set in motion with the father’s death. The father leaves the vineyard to all three, along with a requirement that all the siblings are to agree on changes to the estate such as sale or division. This serves to both bond the siblings and at the same time threaten to escalate the underlying instability in the three-way relationship, made volatile by Jean’s long absence and failure to return for his mother’s funeral some years before.
This terrain–how a family deals with the problems of inheritance–is a familiar one. Olivier Assayas’s excellent Summer Hours deals with similar material in a French setting, though in the context of art rather than grapes, and in a somewhat more serious fashion than Back to Burgundy.
In truth, Back to Burgundy has its share of soap opera qualities. But there is good melodrama and bad melodrama, and in my view Back to Burgundy is the former.
Further, it has its share of darker undercurrents–there were gnarly tensions everywhere between the siblings, in the marriages, between generations, and across extended families and friendships. But you know in your bones it is not going to be a tragedy, or to end with the viewer overwhelmed by angst and ambiguity. It is too sunny for that. Yet neither do you believe it is going to resolve in an overly pat ending–everything back the way it was neat as a pin.
The problems faced by the characters are real and specific. But, stepping back, we are invited to understand them as the inevitable result of the way life works. C’est la vie. Things change. People get older and die. They don’t say the things they should say. They have to balance obligations and yearnings.
So “wine” is a nice metaphor, non? Complexity, nuance, some dark undercurrents–but in the end beguiling and satisfying, even if not wholly transparent, and with a necessarily mysterious quality.
Jean has married during his time away and owns a vineyard in Australia with his wife, from whom he may or may not be separating. Her appearance on the scene creates further complications.
In speaking to his wife–new to France–Jean contrasts Australian wines with those from his native Burgundy. Australian wines are easier, made for the year. French wines are made for many years. They are harder to do. They take judgment, commitment, sacrifice. His wife asks which type of wine is better. He answers–with some truth mixed in with some diplomacy–that both kinds of wines have their pleasures. So too with the conduct of lives.
The movie itself strikes a nice balance between easier and more challenging pleasures. It mostly takes a side in favor of challenging but is pretty generous of heart about it.
The gorgeous locations didn’t hurt either.
The French actresses don’t hurt either. I dunno what it is about them.
I did have to wonder about how much of the narrative was realism and how much romanticism. I’d have guessed that French vineyards at harvest time would be filled with migrant labor, and that any blacks doing the harvest would be burlier and less agreeable than the charming and winsome black vendangeur from Brittany Jean almost falls for.
As one who has done time in the fields commented:
My crew is a mixture of different ages, migrants from Spain, people without regular full-time jobs, and retirees. Some are immigrants (or their descendants), from the Maghreb, France’s former North African colonies of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.
Not so in the film, where the pickers seem mostly like nice white college kids having a good time. In real life do they meet nightly for lively parties filled with coy flirtatiousness, Dionysian excesses kept in check by good manners and old-fashioned French gender distinctions and sexual preferences? Do they dispense with techno and rap, break out a guitar, and sing happy folk songs? I don’t know but it looked like fun.