BACK TO BURGUNDY’s original French title is less about returning home and more about the ties that bind one to that home. I leave the reasons for why movie titles are willfully mistranslated, but bring it up because THE TIES THAT BIND feels like a more accurate description of why a prodigal son finds it so hard to walk away from his family’s vineyard when he returns after 10 years, and a whole lifetime, away from it.
We are first introduced to the magic that Jean (Pio Marmaï) finds in the rhythms of seasonal life at that vineyard in Burgundy. In the first of many lyrical montages, filmmaker Cédric Klapisch shows us the progression of days and seasons where, as Jean us, nothing stays the same. At least that was the case when Jean was a boy. As he grows, though, he finds the rural setting stifling, and longs to see the wider world. When his father falls ill, though, he returns to the family business from his new home in Australia, all but a stranger to his brother, Jérémie (François Civil), now married with a baby, and to his sister, Juliette (Ana Girardot), home again after ending a complicated relationship. There’s little time for catching up, though. The harvest, which has its own mystical timetable, must begin soon, and the three put their emotions on hold as they determine through their five sense the best day to start the harvest, a process that will dredge up memories good and bad even as it introduces us to the art and science of winemaking.
Those repressed emotions are a gateway to flashbacks of a family centered around transmuting grapes into wine. The siblings, when children, lined up and blindfolded as their father feeds them morsels of food in order to broaden their palates, and then lining them up in the same way, without blindfolds, and asking gently but firmly for them to taste the family’s wine and distinguish the layers of aroma and flavor in each vintage produced over generations. It’s potent, rich in detail for both the sensual experience and for the bonding it provokes not just between the siblings, but between them and all the winemakers before them. For all the hi-tech equipment, for all the laboratory assists in determining peak sugar and Ph balance, it’s the way a freshly picked grape, captured in loving detail, pops between their fingers, or the description of how different a grape from the same vine tastes from the same vine, when one grows in the sunnier side, that are the deciding factors. That and the discussion that falls just short of argument, between the three of them about what day to harvest, a discussion that includes deciding what kind of wine they want to produce that year, and the underlying tensions the three are feeling about one another.
Klapisch has chosen a, ahem, delicious metaphor in which to explore family dynamics, and the tension between wanting to be part of a tradition that is difficult to put aside, and the desire to be one’s own person, to make one’s own unique place in the world. The seasons that melted into one another to magically as Jean gazed out his window as a boy become for him as a man hard work, still beautiful, but complicated by seasonal workers with little invested in the harvest, the demands of young families at odds with the time necessary to produce a wine worthy of the winery’s traditions, and tax laws that make selling an attractive option. Still, Klapisch reminds us subtly of the pull. A scene of the vineyard, green and full of ripe grapes glowing in the sun is interrupted as each sibling in turn pops up, a grape in hand, lost in the intense concentration of analyzing the crop and in the reverie of being one with sky, sun, and vine. Or the three of them later among the vats, tasting the wine as it ages, waxing philosophical about its progress, and trying to come to determine their future on this land and with this way of life. The place and the action have the air of being a constant through centuries, and the uncertainty of what will happen next year is palpably agonizing as the three balance the Ph of the sensible solution and the sweetness of continuing on.
The melodrama of familial frictions finds no villains, nor the simple answers that would relegate BACK TO BURGUNDY to a mere travelogue, beautiful as the cinematography may be. The vineyard setting may be specific, and it may incidentally instill a new or grater admiration and respect for the winemaking process, but this is a more universal tale of families in a world where new opportunities vie with the comfort of the familiar. In a scenario where there is no wrong answer, how do you choose with the same intuition reserved for picking a day for harvest, what the right answer is? And how do you hold back the inevitability of change?