It’s not that other vineyard films like Éric Rohmer’s “Autumn Tale” or Gilles Legrand’s “You Will Be My Son,” starring Niels Arestrup as the winemaker from hell, were not excellent.
But none of them can match “Back to Burgundy” for its determination to make growing grapes and making wine in general and four seasons in one vineyard in particular as much of a character in a film as its personal drama.
As co-written (with Santiago Amigorena) and directed by veteran French filmmaker Cédric Klapisch, the film’s emphasis on a trio of thirty-something siblings and their relation to the family domaine make the French title “Ce Qui Nous Lie” (“What Binds Us”) especially appropriate.
Warm without sacrificing integrity, pleasant but not to a fault, “Back to Burgundy” is satisfying rather than earth-shaking. It balances the genuine family bond between the trio with complex, at times difficult, individual scenarios as well as all that oenologic lore.
Because Klapisch’s previous films, like “When The Cat’s Away,” “L’Auberge Espagnole” and “Russian Dolls,” are all urban in setting, the filmmaker sought out help when venturing into rural territory.
Key was the assistance of Jean-Marc Roulot, who plays Marcel, the estate’s manager, and has been a winemaker as well as a working actor for some thirty years. Aside from performing, his job here, he told a French reporter, “is to make sure nobody laughs when the film is shown in Beaune.”
What results are fascinating sequences that deal with such specifics as how you chose the day to pick the grapes (“with white, on time is already too late”) and how to decide how much of the harvest you destem.
Also grounding the story is the fine photography of Alexis Kavyrchine, a cinematographer with a documentary background, who provides stunning images of the vineyards in conditions ranging from sunshine to snow.
A cast that is convincing as siblings is also essential, and “Back to Burgundy” does especially well with the gifted trio of actors not as well known here as they are in France: Pio Marmai, Ana Girardot and François Civil.
Marmai plays Jean, the family’s eldest son and the film’s central figure, the man who is in fact coming back to the Burgundy region after a decade away.
Jean left home in part because his father, seen in frequent flashbacks, was too hard on him, and he’s returning because of the man’s impending death. Currently running a small domaine in Australia with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, the mother of his young son, Jean has to figure out his relationship both to Burgundy and the family he left behind.
Happiest to see Jean return is sister Juliette (Girardot), who has been working with her father for the past two years. She clearly has the winemaking gift but not the confidence to go with it, and she is juggling her strong ideas about wine with insecurities about whether she is cut out to be the boss.
Loving wine but not having as much of a gift for it is younger son Jeremie (Civil). He’s had the misfortune of marrying into a prosperous winemaking family and having to deal with an overbearing father-in-law who makes independent life difficult for himself and his bride.
In addition to their individual dilemmas, the siblings, as joint owners of the family domaine, have to figure out not only their individual dramas but how to come to a resolution about what to do with the land, whether to sell all, in part or not at all, a decision made more difficult by the considerable inheritance tax which has to be paid.
As we watch these three go through an entire year on the land, dealing with everything from the chaotic harvest to the necessity of digging up an ancient vine planted by their grandfather, we get a sense of wine as serious business that demands your soul as well as your body.
“You really feel the land belongs to you when you work it,” Jean begins to understand, and viewers who treat themselves to “Back to Burgundy” will get a bit of that sense of ownership as well.