There’s a lack of sentimentality to Paul de Marseul, the vintner played by Niels Arestrup in Gilles Legrand’s You Will Be My Son. He isn’t a cold man, but after decades spent monitoring soil quality and weather patterns and thinking months ahead about how to assure a good harvest, he knows he can’t afford to let his heart dictate his choices. This is a man whose father died when he asphyxiated in a cellar and fell into a wine-vat, and Paul lied about what happened because he didn’t want to ruin the reputation of that year’s vintage.
You Will Be My Son is about what happens when Paul is faced with the impending death of his cancer-ridden right-hand-man François Amelot (Patrick Chesnais). Paul’s son Martin (Lorànt Deutsch) has been waiting his whole life to move out of his tedious administrative role and get into the real art of growing and processing grapes, but Paul doesn’t trust Martin’s palate or judgment, so he asks François’ son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet) to fly in from California, where he’s “Coppola’s head winemaker,” and become the presumptive heir to Clos de Marseul. Philippe is vain and flashy—he’s been living in California, after all—but Paul loves his confidence. Besides, Paul knows he has to make a move fast, or Martin will take root in the job and become impossible to prune away.
To Legrand’s credit, he doesn’t waste any time getting to the crux of the situation. Philippe arrives in the first half hour of You Will Be My Son, and before the halfway point of the movie, Martin is already screaming at Paul for being a terrible father. Then the film becomes more involving, as it digs into the emotional and legal complications involved with Paul taking his closest associate’s son as his own. This is the stuff of classic melodrama, with Martin as the long-suffering soul who’s been undervalued by his loved ones, and is craving catharsis.
But too much of You Will Be My Son proceeds according to form, with Paul behaving abominably and the opportunistic Philippe following suit, while Martin sputters and gripes, and the dying François shakes his head sadly at the whole sorry affair. Everything is explicit; no one makes an unexpected move. Even Martin’s dream sequences are on-message, as he imagines his father drowning him in a cask. Worse, the characters spill out wine metaphors with drunken abandon. Paul criticizes his daughter-in-law’s perfume for being too sweet, when he prefers a drier aroma; Philippe hits on a bartender by saying, “My body has been lying fallow, but I’m thinking of going sowing.” After a while, this ceases to be cute and becomes the French-winery-drama equivalent of the Smurfs replacing every third word with “smurf."
What’s especially nettlesome about the heavy-handedness of the dialogue and the characterizations is that Legrand really didn’t have to push so hard. He already has Arestrup, one of the best character actors in France, playing a stubborn bear of a man who’s more compelling as a tragic figure than as a villain. You Will Be My Son works best when it’s at its most unforced, and when the world of wine-making—with its anticipation of the season’s cycles and its fascination with subtle changes in flavor—intersects naturally with the life of a European business leader who has skewed priorities. If the film weren’t so busy making sure the audience hates Paul, it could’ve maybe asked and answered some questions about whether his worldview has merit. Maybe putting Philippe in charge of the family business would be of greater benefit to a society that needs good wine. Or maybe these distinctions are irrelevant in the long term, and Paul should be more conscious of what the local funeral director says about plant life and human life: “It’s all carbon, sir. It all breaks down.”