The Vintner’s Luck is an irresistible story of love, wine and angels. It tells the tale of Sobran, a peasant winemaker in 19th century France and his life-long relationship with the angel Xas as they grapple with the sensual, the sacred and the profane in search of the perfect vintage. The Vintner’s Luck is directed by Niki Caro (The Whale Rider) and stars Jérémie Renier (The Child), Gaspard Ulliel (Young Hannibal), Vera Farmiga (The Departed), Maria Ruiz (Summer Rain) and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider).
Exquisite design and radiant performances from two unique talents can’t quite overcome the muddled, hollow melodramatics of Niki Caro’s The Vintner’s Luck, the Kiwi director’s French/New Zealand adaptation of Elizabeth Knox’s novel.
A frankly loopy story about a peasant’s passion for wine, family and celestial kinship occasionally hits the right notes; more often, this overripe confection is a lot like a cheap, syrupy red – not made to give you a headache but, as you take bigger gulps, it invariably will.
Caro has had a tough time delivering on the immense promise of her first film, Whale Rider (2002 and, for the record, one of this reviewer's all-time favourite movies). Her follow-up film and American debut, North Country (2005) starring Charlize Theron, was critically-lauded but abandoned by its studio when it got lost in the award season scrambling; it petered out at the US box office with a paltry US$18million.
The Vintner’s Luck feels a like an aggrieved director saying 'Stuff you all, I’ll make want I want to make." Determinedly noncommercial to the point of haughtiness, Caro takes a young peasant’s all-consuming desire to produce a classic wine and concocts a Faustian morality tale that entwines class struggle, adultery and blind ambition.
The film begins and ends in the vineyards of Burgundy. Sobran (Jeremie Renier) is a spirited young man who has become increasingly frustrated that his views on viniculture are ignored by the orchard’s overseer, and that his elderly father forbids him his passions for the beguiling Celeste (Keisha Castle-Hughes). When his ego is bruised one time too many, Sobran drinks his anger away under the night skies, surrounded by the rich soil and blossoming grapevines with which he feels such an affinity.
On this night he is visited by Xas (Gaspard Ulliel), a majestic winged angel whose chiselled jaw, lilting voice and waxed chest entrance Sobran. the presence of androgynous Xas brings luck, both good (a bumper crop, a loving family) and bad (war and tragedy). At one point late in the film, the latent homosexuality simmering between the young vintner and his guardian angel is given flight (literally) in an erotic mid-air coupling that is one of Caro’s more ambitious and...well, silly, artistic flourishes.
As he ages, Sobran finds fame and fortune as one of Burgundy’s most brilliant vintners. His debut vintage, an 1815 classic, makes him rich and he is soon tempted by the estate of Baroness Aurora de Valday (the everywhere-at-the-moment Vera Farmiga) who wishes to market his yearly crop to Parisian high-society. From here, the film's progress is obvious – ruined crops, occasional deaths, temptations and betrayals – until Sobran (who has aged terribly, despite his wife Celeste remaining as youthful as the day they met) finds redemption for his wrongs in his passing.
Renier, who was so charming as the younger brother opposite Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (2009), is not an instantly likable leading man in The Vintner’s Luck, which goes a long way to making his story uninvolving, even arduous at times. The painfully literal dialogue he shares with his guardian angel Xas tests the viewer's endurance – it is poor writing, pompous and pretentious.
The film draws some much-needed warmth from its female leads. As her love for Sobran blossoms, Keisha Castle Hughes’ Celeste gives the film a sweet focus. The Oscar nomination for her role as Paikea under Caro’s direction in Whale Rider won’t be repeated – this film has far too many flaws to warrant award contention, regardless of how deserving certain elements (set and production design, cinematography) may appear – but the bond the director and star share is obvious. The best work done in the film is Farmiga’s, whose character growth and depth marks the film’s only fully realised role. Scenes involving the consequences of the Baroness’ breast cancer and the intensity of her inevitable bedding of Sobran (trust me, it’s no spoiler) are suitably moving.
Having not read Knox’s novel, a quick scan of the glowing web-reviews offered up adjectives such as 'luminous’, 'inspiring’, 'magical’, 'spellbinding’ and 'hopelessly-romantic’. None of these elements could describe the film, which at best is an 'okay' plod through a not-very-special man’s life. Having so perfectly transferred Witi Ihimaera’s Maori saga to the screen, Caro has proved she can find the emotional core of her source material with an effortless grace. The Vintner’s Luck is a credit to her ambition, but it seems that a mystical European arthouse flick blending wine, women and cherubs was perhaps too great a leap to make at this stage of her career.