Film Review – You Will Be My Son
You Will Be My Son
A man fidgets in a crematorium next to a funeral director and wonders aloud if the ashes of the oak casket will mix with the ashes of the dead body inside, and the director obviously answers that they will. “He never did like oak. It gave the wine a woody flavor,” the man says. “It’s all carbon,” says the funeral director. The man in the casket, now ashes, was once Paul de Marseul, who lived his life so dominant over his son, so tyrannical, that even after the man’s death, his son wonders if he’s disappointed his father with his decisions. Gilles Legrand’s new film (new to us—it came out in France in 2011), You Will Be My Son, is about fathers and sons and the shadow of expectation that can poison said relationship. It is superbly acted and smartly written, and there are some great moments, but it occasionally feels too obvious, and the final act veers a little too sharply into Hitchcock territory to fit in with the rest of this quiet, stoic story. Despite these minor faults, however, this film’s got legs.
Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup) is the patriarch of a vast estate and winery that has been in his family for generations, but like any aging emperor, he must find a worthy heir to his throne. He has a son, an only son, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), but Martin is so eager to please and meek that Paul finds him insufferable. Paul’s partner, François (Patrick Chesnais), also has a son, though, living in California, who works for the Coppola winery. When François takes ill and is given six months to live, Paul takes it upon himself to invite François’s son, Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), to live at the estate in order to take care of his father. There may be ulterior motives, however.
From the moment Philippe arrives, Paul showers him with attention, offering him expensive bottles of wine, taking him on a tour of the estate, buying him a $1500 pair of shoes. Martin runs the books, inspects the vineyards, maintains the machinery, and oversees the distribution and sales of the wine, but is still seen by Paul as a weak man incapable of anything right. When Martin says the windward sides of the vines need to be trimmed so that the grapes can breathe, Paul sends him a piercing glare. When Martin says the mechanical grape sorter needs to be trashed and a new one bought, Paul poo-poos him and says that François will know what to do. François is then taken to the vineyards and the mechanical sorter and re-iterates these same facts. François, exploited all these years by Paul, sees what is happening and knows all too well what is really going on, and he doesn’t like it one bit. François understands that Paul views himself as king of the castle, and all those around him as subjects and pawns. When Martin’s wife, Alice (Anne Marivin), comes to Paul to show him her plans for updating their living room, Paul denies ever having authorized the renovation. She curtly reminds him he gave them permission two months ago. He replies that if she wants something from him perhaps she should be nicer. Nicer has an edged meaning.
Paul is a master manipulator, brow-beating some into submission, bribing others, but in the end, he always intends to get his way. He is perfectly portrayed by Arestrup. Deutsch plays Martin like a dog with its tail between its legs, with such a perfect vulnerability that when he finally reaches his breaking point, his dramatic outburst is completely revelatory and exciting and cathartic. The other actors are also top notch, bringing a weight to what could be melodramatic material in less capable hands, most especially Marivin as Martin’s fiercely protective wife. Unfortunately, though, the script does become a bit heavy-handed with showing how much of a bully Paul can be to his son. It becomes a bit too obvious at times, a bit hackneyed and cliché, but never enough to fully derail the film.
What almost derails the film is its final thirty minutes. The first two-thirds of this solid drama are so grounded in reality that when the film becomes an almost Hitchcockian thriller, the audience is ill-prepared for the tonal shift. I can understand that these characters are driven mad by such a tyrannical force as Paul, but the ending feels trite, and like a cheap way out. It seemed to me as if the writers didn’t know how to resolve all the drama they’d thrummed up and needed an easy solution. I would have even been happy with an ambiguous ending—this is a French film, after all. But even with this last minute detour into improbability, You Will Be My Son is solidly acted and smartly written: the elegant and smooth body of the wine helps immensely in tempering the slightly bitter finish.