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A Review of Niki Caro's The Vintner's Luck

By Carolyn Meers

Click to enlarge

Vera Farmiga and Jeremie Renier

Niki Caro's new film, The Vintner's Luck is much like a wine in its successes and shortcomings; it looks beautiful as it unfolds, has great visual promise and boasts a lovely rich colour but, unfortunately, lacks deeper supporting flavours. Though it makes efforts to be more, The Vintner's Luck is ultimately an immature, unrealised product which leaves one with a puzzling, muddled aftertaste.

Just as the vintner Sobran Jodeau (Jeremie Renier in the film) is challenged to make a consistently good product and top his previous success, director Niki Caro has faced similar high expectations since the release of her worldwide blockbuster Whale Rider in 2005. The award winning New Zealand director had her work cut out for her when she chose to adapt Elizabeth Knox's critically acclaimed novel by the same name to the screen this year. Set in 19th century France, Knox's novel vacillates between the known and the unknown, between earth, heaven and hell. The novel and subsequently the film lend focus to the relationships between man and wife, man and mistress, man and earth, and angel.

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Jeremie Renier as Sobran Jodeau

Sobran Jodeau, whose life as a rags-to-riches vintner is the primary focus of the film, literally collides with Xas (Gaspard Ulliel), an angel, on a ridge near his home one summer night. This encounter is the first (but sadly not the last) instance of confusion in the film. It is, however, an accurate preview of how the story is handled (read: mishandled) throughout. Jodeau remains unbelievably calm when faced with the creature, only leering a bit and losing his grip on his bottle of wine before comfortably launching into conversation with Xas. Jodeau's lack of surprise is baffling, even offending. How can one be expected to believe that any human would act remotely collected when faced with the archetypal symbol of the afterlife? Wings and all? From this moment on the film makes repeated requests of the audience. We are pressed to accept the threadbare plot, the unlikely characters, and the fragmented dialogue.

It becomes more and more difficult to co-operate with these demands as the story progresses.

Over the next one hundred and twenty-seven minutes the film follows the life of Jodeau, his good and bad luck with wine, love and life, and his annual rendez vous with Xas. As is typical of nearly all book-to-film adaptations, those who have read Knox's novel will likely feel that there are numerous holes in the cinematic version, not the least of which is the all but omitted romantic relationship between Jodeau and Xas. In a move that pre-emptively nullified the film's potential raciness, much of the sensuality between the vintner and the angel is downplayed, a move which would work fine if fractured flashes of this attraction were not left in. The remaining scenes of tension and flirtation just read as confusing.

The scenery is indeed beautiful, and the actors do well to carry off the period piece costumes. But the landscape and well-fashioned corsets do little to fill the script gaps, which beg for clarification, or in the least expansion.

While Renier works within his means and makes Jodeau a man of many stiff-jawed, pensive stares, Keisha Castle-Hughes (reunited with Caro for the first time since Whalerider) delivers a stirring performance as Celeste, Jodeau's long suffering wife. Though nearly reduced to a vessel that is frequently shown pregnant or nude, Castle-Hughes' charged primal energy keeps her from disappearing. She is fascinating, and Celeste's eventual descent into madness is both entrancing and unsettling. But for all that Castle-Hughes can seethe and glare she is still dumb for proper words, another victim of the disjointed dialogue.

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Keisha Castle-Hughes reunites with director
Niki Caro

In the same vein, Vera Farmiga as Aurora the Baroness is regal and flawlessly poised, but lacks the words to fully and powerfully express her relevance. To Farmiga's credit she does well to silently convey fear, sadness and pain; her quaking figure awaiting the start of a primitive mastectomy operation is haunting, to be sure.

As the angel, Gaspard Ulliel is smooth-voiced and unblinking. He delivers his few lines in earnest but he seems to speak in half sentences or riddles, as if answering a different question, or just not answering those being posed. On a visual note, Ulliel cuts a fine figure in his angel get-up, an expected outfit of white, toga-like garments and pale, snug fitting pants.

The camerawork does little to distract from the film's weighty script issues. Jumpy handhelds work to capture the gritty peasant lifestyle of the times, but fail to do service to the more grandiose moments in the film, such as Xas' movement on the ground and in the air. Scenes that could contain his aerial movements are conspicuously avoided. Lens blurring and frequent cutaways are employed in an effort to skirt the issue. In these instances the film's seams are exposed. Filmed quickly and with a limited budget, it was not the costumes that suffered the brunt of the financial crunch but the technology in Xas' take-offs and landings.

As the novel is so distinguished (a recent winner of the Deautz Medal for Fiction and of the Tasmania Pacific Region Prize) and the director is so beloved, the disappointing result of The Vintner's Luck is a surprise, and a bit puzzling. Niki Caro's name carries great expectation, and with good reason. The success of Whale Rider and the more recent critical acclaim for North Country (2005) sways one early on to assume quality from The Vintner's Luck. The failure of the film to meet such expectations is truly disappointing, but also mystifying. How could this have gone so wrong? How could such a rich novel paired with an internationally lauded director not produce a great film? The Vintner's Luck is an unfortunate example of an artistic and directional misfire. It had potential to convey profound meaning but never fully grasps it, and is relegated to a kind of movie limbo -- beautiful but clumsy, handsome but mute.

To borrow a phrase from Sobran Jodeau as he describes an immature wine, the film was "common, like a beautiful girl in a cheap dress"; attractive in theory but ultimately lacking refinement. The material was grand, but the presentation unbecoming.


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