Niels Arestrup is one bad dad in You Will Be My Son
By Doug Strassler
There is something so calming about French films – the lush countryside vistas, the way men wear tailored suits to all occasions that somehow still let them breathe, the glass of wine that seems to always be at hand regarless of the hour of the day. (Yes! Remember the wine.) Such casualness makes it seem like a no-brainer for vintner Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup) to cavalierly decide to trade in his disappointing son, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), for a more appealing model.
No, I don’t mean that Paul plans to bring Martin to a son-swapping factory, nor place an ad in Craig’s List (liste du Craig?). But You Will Be My Son, the gorgeous and entrancing new film from Gilles Legrand that opens on Friday at the Paris Theatre, examines the hard-hearted relationships that too often exist between well-intentioned fathers and sons.
Paul owns a successful St. Emilion estate bottling top wines, one he took over at the age of seventeen when his own father passed away. After he learns that the vineyard’s manager, Francois (Patrick Chesnais), faces a terminal cancer diagnosis, the pragmatic Paul immediately focuses on finding a replacement for Francois, a dutiful right hand who always senses not only the needs of his customers, but his owner’s as well. With all the haughtiness of a Gallic King Lear, Paul “auditions” Martin as a replacement for Francois, but the die is already cast; Martin is a details guy, but doesn’t have the finesse of a vintner. It’s not his fault – Paul never taught him how, living a life avoiding his milquetoast son rather than elevating his skills and potential.
When Francois’ own son, Philippe (Nicolas Bridet) returns from America – he works at Francis Ford Coppola’s Napa County winery – to look after his father, Paul takes an immediate interest in the man. Legrand (who co-wrote with Delphine de Vigan) soon makes it obvious that Paul doesn’t just seek a replacement manager, but also looks to supplant Martin with Philippe as his favored son. Before long, they are going on expensive out-of-town jaunts and shopping sprees the likes of which haven’t been seen since Edward Lewis squired Vivian Ward around in Pretty Woman.
If this makes Paul sounds dastardly, well, it should. Son is a beautiful, and beautifully frank, film about underlying tensions and passive-aggressiveness among family members. (Martin and his wife, Alice, played with gentle patience by Anne Marivin, live in Paul’s chateau, but as prisoners more than relatives.) Arestrup, who has played outwardly menacing figures in films like Jacques Audiard’s actually prison-set A Prophet (for which he won a second César Award) brings to life an even more insidious life force – a father who doesn’t respect his own son and makes no bones about trying to understand him. Even without dialogue, Arestrup’s icy sneer is enough to dress one down. Passive as Don Corleone himself, the actor’s subtle command of every scene reminds the viewer what it is like to face a glass ceiling in one’s own house: it becomes a house of horrors.
Legrand wrings muscular performances from his entire cast, particularly Chesnais, whose character faces both an impossible Paul and the Grim Reaper. And both Deutsch and Bridet embody opposite sides of the emasculated son coin with conviction. Legrand and De Vigan’s plotting eventually heads for the inevitably heavy-handed, but it’s in support of Son’s greater, tragic themes. For Martin and Philippe, destiny can only be fulfilled by abandoning their individual identities. This is a sins-of-the-father story where the greatest sin is of omission – of love, of opportunity, of the chance to spread their wings and fly in the direction of their choice. That’s enough to drive anyone to drink.
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