The Vintner’s Luck
Wine and cherubs combine to create occasionally lovely but inconsistent love story
The Vintner’s Luck
Directed by Niki Caro
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Keisha Castle-Hughes
New Zealand writer-director Niki Caro and actress / fellow Kiwi Keisha Castle-Hughes last teamed on the magnificent 2002 drama Whale Rider. At the time, Castle-Hughes was a mere 11 years old. In the intervening years, she’s grown into a lovely young woman. As expected, seeing the two artists reunite is one of the small joys contained in the new historical drama The Vintner’s Luck.
Like Whale Rider before it, The Vintner’s Luck is adapted from a popular novel. Whereas Whale Rider was sensitive and rock-solidly self-assured, however, The Vintner’s Luck is measurably less so. Spinning a story of underprivileged aboriginal communities in New Zealand seemed right up Caro’s alley. Winemaking in early-1800s rural France, however, seems to have her on less confident footing. Sadly, you won’t find anything on par with Castle-Hughes’ devastating, climactic “My name is Paikea” speech here.
It’s just after the turn of the 19th century, and lowly vineyard worker Sobran Jodeau (Belgian actor Jérémie Renier—not to be confused with American actor Jeremy Renner) is bristling at the idea of producing substandard wine for the château’s kindly but unsophisticated Comte de Vully (Patrice Valota). Jodeau lives and breathes grapes and dreams of producing a masterful wine. One fateful night, stumbling around the vineyard, he’s visited by a real-deal angel named Xas (Gaspard Ulliel, from A Very Long Engagement and Hannibal Rising). We’re talking wings, loose-fitting toga, the whole, heavenly deal. Xas, it seems, is a fan of the grape himself and shares Jodeau’s passion for creating the perfect vino.
Xas proposes a partnership of sorts. Once every year, on the same night, the two will meet and discuss the art of winemaking. Xas offers no mystical assistance or preternatural vision—only his centuries of knowledge and his single-minded love. As the years go on, Jodeau’s skill grows. He marries a lovely peasant girl named Celeste (Castle-Hughes). He fathers several children. He endures a few tragedies. Eventually, his family moves into the château itself, which has been taken over by the comte’s widowed niece Aurora (the always-welcome Vera Farmiga from Up In the Air and The Departed). Aurora is soon swept up in Jodeau’s passion, and she agrees to do all in her power to help create a world-class winery.
The more time Jodeau spends with Aurora, teaching her to taste, to feel, to love the grape, the more distracted the two become. Naturally, this sets off a triangle of jealousy between Jodeau, Celeste and the beautiful countess. The Vintner’s Luck wants to be one of those sensual, art-house love stories like Chocolat, inflaming passions while exciting the taste buds. There are some genuinely erotic moments to be found, and you’ll probably want a good glass of wine afterward. But winemaking remains a rarified art, and Caro’s still-raw skill as a writer and director can’t quite squeeze all the right elements from this story.
The film should soar with elements of magical realism, but it remains a mostly earthbound melodrama. The occasional angel sightings just aren’t enough to lift it into the stratosphere. Xas seems all too human, and Caro stumbles by shooting most of his appearances in a slo-mo style that makes him and his snowy, strap-on wings look rather cheesy. A mix of international accents wrapped around French-sounding vowels doesn’t help the authenticity much, either. Neither does some incredibly uneven old-age makeup over the course of the film’s many decades.
Inconstancies in skill aside, The Vintner’s Luck has been lovingly staged. The parties, the feasts, the rustic brick cottages, the changing seasons in the hardscrabble fields: All look positively historic. Though the camerawork is occasionally murky, the settings are lovely to look at. Caro is clearly enamored with the earth, the leaves and the bugs. The filmmaker obviously took her time shooting the film, and the detailed production design reflects that.
In the end, the metaphor that The Vintner’s Luck is trying to get across is an uncomplicated one. Grapes do not produce good wine when pampered and given rich soil in which to grow. They must, for lack of a better word, suffer in order to reach a proper level of complexity. So too with life. If only The Vintner’s Luck could have created tragedies, loves, passions and impediments of such an intricate vintage—instead of the more homogenous varietal with which we’re stuck.