Saturday, May 5, 2012

Niki Caro's THE VINTNER'S LUCK -- now called A Heavenly Vintage -- may have gone straight to DVD, but consider it a must-see

Every so often -- but not nearly often enough -- a film comes along that is so different and, in its way amazing; so rich and odd and emotionally resonant and yet, really rather simple; that deals with subjects dear to your heart: love and sex (both hetero and homo), history, work, family and... wine! that you think to yourself when the film is finished, "This is why they invented movies." Now, you could also have said, "This is why they invented novels" because THE VINTNER'S LUCK (currently being distributed under the less good title of A Heavenly Vintage), the new film from New Zealand director Niki Caro, is adapted by Ms Caro and Joan Scheckel from a novel by Elizabeth Knox, which is said to be (as are almost all novels made into movies) better than the resulting film. Fine. TrustMovies will accept that, while noting that the resulting film is also damn good in its own right.

Ms Caro (shown at left) has had an interesting, if lopsided, career. Heavily praised for her second full-length feature, the simple-minded, so-so Whale Rider (2002), that film still proved an international success. She went on to make a better American movie North Country (2005), with Charlize Theron, that did little business. Now comes Vintner/
Vintage, first seen under its original title at the Toronto International Film Festival way back in 2009 but only last month becoming available here in the USA via DVD. (And in a not very sterling transfer. A film this beautiful absolutely deserves a Blu-ray release!)

If Whale Rider put Ms Caro (and its star, Keisha Castle-Hughes) on the map, it's this film (also starring Ms Castle-Hughes, above) that will, over time, most burnish her reputation. While Whale Rider offered little content in a too-lengthy running time (granted, what there was probably seemed quite exotic to international audiences), this wine-and-love story is filled with content -- and character, history, mystery and... an angel. The manner in which Ms Caro handles this "other-worldly" creature is exemplary: We first see but a suggestion of the winged figure. And then, he is simply there -- bright as something white in the night -- and absolutely real. That he is played by the fine French actor Gaspard Ulliel, below, who makes at once the hunkiest and most beautiful (and intelligent!) angel ever (eat your heart out John Phillip Law) almost immediately takes the movie to new territory.

The time is the early 1800s and our hero, the vintner Sobran, played by another fine French actor, Jérémie Renier (below, who will soon have his day in the America sun when his hit film Cloclo -- about the performer/songwriter who wrote the original of the famous Sinatra hit My Way -- opens across the U.S. this summer), after a drunken night, falls into a stupor and wakes up, three photos below, in the arms of this angel. Man and myth bond warily, eventually warmly -- both have an great interest in wine and wine-making, and the angel has an interest in something else.

Into this mix comes a Baroness, set to inherit the vast estate and its vineyards upon which our vintner lives and works. As played by the wonderful Vera Farmiga, below, in one of her best roles (yes, she's has a lot of these), the character is reticent and proud, deep and genuine, and adds as much as do our two males to the richly evolving story.

Why, you may ask (as did I), is the angel even in this tale? Is he a metaphor? What does he represent? Well, in some ways, he is at the heart of things, and so beautifully is he acted by Ulliel that I would not have wanted to lose him. He may represent the other half of Sobran -- aren't we often, as Jacob did Biblically, wrestling with angels of our better (or worse) nature? Because the film is also about life, in all its complexity -- work, love, sex, creation -- this fellow also offers wisdom and help, as well as some other things. He's mysterious, sexual and loving, certainly beyond easy explanation and -- thank god -- beyond the ridiculous tenents of our worldly religions. And this is all for the best.

The movie is gorgeously photographed, and its sets and costumes seems both original and on the mark. And Ms Caro has either guided her actors well (the film is so perfectly cast that perhaps she needed only to trust their talent and intelligence) or let them have their lead in order to run with it. In her screenplay, she and her co-writer have allowed events and character to unfold gradually and graciously so that nothing seems forced.

The filmmaker does not over-explain but rather leaves it to us to do the moderately heavy-lifting it takes to satisfy our need for explanation, theory, closure. (The movie does have a nice arc -- with the beginning, in which we know almost nothing, coming home full circle by the finale.) We learn a lot in and from this movie -- and still leave it pondering. Which is, I think, as it should be.

The Vintner' Luck/A Heavenly Vintage is an original. It doesn't compare to anything else I've seen, and I am grateful for that, and it. (For its in-flight sex scene alone -- and I am not speaking of the usual carnality in an airplane rest room -- I'd call it a must-see.) Dividing audiences and critics, from its debut in Toronto, through its run in its home country of New Zealand, to its current appearance and member reviews on Netflix -- love it or hate it, the movie demands a viewing. So weigh in, and then scream at me, if you must. The film is available now on DVD, for sale or rental, from the usual suspects.


the occasional pat said...

Loved the book and after 2 viewings I have come to like the film too. I agree with your review but I would recommend reading the book first as there is so much more to know about the story.

Anonymous said...

This truly is a beautiful film and really warranted a North America theatrical release. I saw it several times at TIFF and am confounded why it did not receive theatrical release. Still, good to have it on dvd. Highly recommend it. Caro is a brilliant director and the cast superb. You will never see anything like it!
Neil Warren

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for commenting, Occasional Pat. And I am sure you are right. Movies can rarely pack in everything that a novel does.

So readers, if you've gotten this far along in the post and comments, please take OP's advice and read the novel first. You'll be doing yourself a favor.

And, Pat -- I am glad you've come to like the film, too!

James van Maanen said...

Neil-- I am sure I would have felt the same way at Toronto, had I been there. I certainly agree with you that the film ought to have found a theatrical release, and yes, I, too, have never seen anything quite like it.
Thanks for your comment!


Assistí o fime gostei muito. Não sei falar muito nessas linguagens técnicas de cinema, mas tem um fundamento forte. Quando vê aquela dança me.lembrei logo da luta de Jacó como diz a Bíblia, ele lutou com o anjo até receber a bênção, e o seu nome foi até trocado,porque simplesmente ele desafiou e ganhou aquela batalaha. E quando o anjo o feriu no tendão de sua perna para que ele o.largasse ali foi uma.marca que ficou em Jacó. E quando vi a filha do cultivador morrer vi nela uma.marca também. Muito bom. Párabens.🎉 o filme é bastante interessante.
Ass.Júnior - Brasil
Whattsap 21999672900

James van Maanen said...

Thanks, Junior! I used Google's translation facility (do a right mouse click -- or maybe left, as I am left-handed and so have changed my mouse option for that -- to translate to English or Portuguese) to read your comment, and I appreciate your taking the time to post it. I'm so glad you found the film worthwhile and have let us in on some of its Biblical references.

Lucilene Simões said...

Simplesmente sensacional! Um filme que você tem que assistir como todos os sentidos atentos. Além disso, o próprio filme aguça os sentidos. As fotografias são espetaculares. Em um primeiro momento, já nas cenas iniciais da aparição do anjo, você se pergunta se o que está assistindo tem algum significado além daquela aparição. E, logicamente, tem muito significado. Recomendo o filme e assistirei novamente para observar novos detalhes

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for commenting. Lucilene. A second viewing seems a good idea. I did that, too -- and got even more out of the film the second time around.