You Will Be My Son isn’t just a dramatic vacation to the wine country of southwestern France, where the beautiful vineyards of Saint-Émilion have produced renowned Bordeaux for centuries. Its unique terroir of climate and soil is also fertile ground for writer-director Gilles Legrand to set a family fiercely protective of this tradition, headed by a pungent patriarchal performance by Niels Arestrup.
Arestrup adds to his string of riveting, diverse, and nuanced father figures (this year’s Our Children and A Prophet in 2009) as 65-year-old Paul de Marseul, running roughshod over his wine estate, and his son, Martin (Loránt Deutsch). Paul keeps his frustrated son arms-length away from the heart of the casks, sticking him in the office managing sales, where even his somewhat ineffectual attempts at securing new clients are thwarted by his father. Too close for Paul’s comfort, Martin and his wife (Anne Marivin) live near enough to the main house so that the old man can hear him having sex. (That they don’t have kids is yet something else the father can needle Martin about.) One of the film’s ironies is that the raging, reigning lion isn’t completely wrong in sizing up his pup’s weaknesses.
For all of Paul’s bravura about his formidable wine management, it’s his longtime estate manager, François Amelot (Patrick Chesnais), who really holds the keys to the kingdom because of his knowledge of the grapes and the secrets of the château’s blend. (In a cellar, you can practically smell the oak in the barrels.) That heritage is threatened when François is diagnosed with a terminal illness and Paul has to face a future without him. François’s wife, Madeleine (Valérie Mairesse), sees these final months as an opportunity to be free of Paul and a chance to bring back home their handsome, charming son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet).
Philippe so resented Paul’s condescending treatment of his loyal father and the lack of opportunity for advancement at the vineyard that he’s traveled the world mastering modern winemaking elsewhere. (The brief scenes of his work in California recall the rise of Napa Valley as a competitor to France in Bottle Shock.) But just as the parents welcome their son home, even under these difficult circumstances, Paul is so impressed by Philippe’s abilities that he wants to claim him for his own, and brush aside his parents and his own son.
The upcoming documentary Red Obsession provides background that supports how realistic the pressures are for the fragile future of the family’s Bordeaux business in the context of global competition. In this story, how far ambition will trump family ties is unpredictable. It turns into a tense mystery tale of revenge, letting family secrets bubble up to the surface.