“You Will Be My Son,” the new feature from French filmmaker Gilles Legrand, tells one of the oldest stories in the book — literally, since it echoes Cain and Abel — but does so with enough gusto to overcome some of the familiarity.
The story centers around white-haired Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup, looking distractingly like Rev. Gene Scott), owner of a major Bordeaux vineyard. He's the big boss, carrying on the family tradition, but he's also greatly dependent on Francois Amelot (Patrick Chesnais), who learned from Paul's late father and has managed the operation for years.
As the big harvest approaches, Francois is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He'd probably be willing, even eager, to finish supervising one last season, but he's already too weak. He'll need replacing, and Paul's adult son Martin (Lorant Deutsch) has long awaited a chance to prove himself to his father.
The problem is that Martin can't prove himself: He is, in fact, lousy at all aspects of growing wine. He refuses to see this, even though Paul has cruelly criticized him about it, and everything else, for years. In addition to his own desire for dad's approval, he is pressured by his beautiful new wife (Valerie Mairesse), who is a much tougher cookie than he could dream of being. In fact, we wonder what ever attracted her to this schnook, other than his pathetic vulnerability, which she doesn't hesitate to exploit.
Martin debates the issue with Paul; he bullies him, until, having no other options this late in the season, Paul reluctantly agrees to give him a chance. “Bullies” is really a euphemism here; Martin has such a limp personality he could be bullied by the Cowardly Lion. What he really does is whine — insert your own bad pun here — until Paul just wants to shut him up.
But suddenly, Francois' son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), having just learned of his father's illness, flies in from Northern California, thus giving up his job as — we are told — Francis Coppola's wine master. Philippe is everything that Martin isn't. He's brilliant, responsible, super-competent, studly, and good company — in short, the son Paul wishes he had sired.
Worst of all, he tries to be sensitive to Martin's feelings, doing everything he can to avoid stepping on his toes — thus infuriating Martin even more. But between Paul's pushing and Martin's sheer ineptitude, he has no choice other than to take charge. Paul has always been hatefully dismissive of Martin, maybe because the latter really is a dope, maybe because he blames him for Mom's death. In fact, maybe his attitude came first and was crucial in turning Martin into such a human zero.
Arestrup is a much-respected character actor in Europe, but little of his work has been noticed in the U.S. Legrand — who is better known as a producer (“Micmacs,” “Ridicule”) than director — has provided him with a meaty starring role, even though the focus sometimes shifts to one or the other of the male characters. Luckily, they are all up to the challenge, particularly Chesnais, who has the fewest lines, yet leaves the most moving impression.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).