Appellate Judge James A. Stewart considers Peter Mayle the ideal of human evolution.
"Fanny, this place just doesn't suit my life."
If you could be anyone else in the world, chances are you'd want to be Peter Mayle, or someone very much like him. The author of A Year in Provence has made a career out of eating, drinking, and living the good life in the southern France region of Provence, starting out with books of anecdotes before branching out into novels. Mayle has even become a TV character in, appropriately enough, a British series titled A Year in Provence.
In the world of Peter Mayle fiction, there's always a plot about a guy who ends up in Provence, stumbles onto a mystery, meets the woman of his dreams, and evolves into someone very much like Peter Mayle. Along the way, there's lots of eating, drinking, and living the good life in Provence. When you're done reading a Mayle novel, all you remember are the meals the hero ate while he was doing…now what was he doing again?
One of those Peter Mayle novels was A Good Year. Was it the one about the truffles? No. The Cezanne? No. It's the one about the vineyard and the mysterious bottles of Le Coin Perdu. I did have to look it up on Amazon.com.
It's now a major motion picture, thanks to Ridley Scott, a neighbor and friend of Mayle's in Provence. How does A Good Year handle that lightweight suspense plot? Read on …
Facts of the Case
A Good Year opens "a few vintages ago," when Max Skinner was a young boy spending his summers with Uncle Henry (Albert Finney, Murder on the Orient Express), who introduced him to the finer points of wine at his beloved vineyard. "The wine will always whisper into your mouth with complete, unabashed honesty every time you take a sip," Henry tells young Max. There will be lots more flashbacks to come, by the way. Still, let's continue …
"Many vintages later," we're in present-day London, where Max (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) has become a banker and trader. Today he's selling, then buying on the cheap. It's a deal that will make 77 million pounds, but lead to an investigation and his suspension from the firm.
Conveniently, he learns that Uncle Henry has just passed away, and he's the closest living relative. That means Max must go to France to claim La Siroque, Henry's chateau and vineyard. He's reluctant to go. "It's times like this, when everyone hates you, that's when it's fun," he protests. Still, he's got to check the place out, especially when prodded by assistant Gemma (Archie Panjabi, Bend It Like Beckham).
When Max gets to La Siroque, he's not impressed. The estate's in disrepair, and the wine's a vintage disaster. As Max puts it, the wine it produces has the "bouquet of a wet dog, hits the palate like a razor blade, with a finish that hints of awful."
Within a day, he's angered Duflot (Didier Bourbon), who runs the vineyard, with his plans to sell out and nearly run down restaurateur Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard) while paying more attention to his cell phone than his driving. There's also trouble on the horizon in the form of Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), Henry's illegitimate daughter from America, who might be the actual owner of the chateau and vineyard.
Will Max trade his high-powered London life for good years in Provence? Will he learn to get along with Duflot, Fanny, and Christie? Will he keep the estate and turn it around? Most importantly, will the wine get better?
What of that mystery story I mentioned earlier? It seems that Screenwriter Marc Klein (Serendipity) and Director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) decided that Peter Mayle's novel had too much plot for their purposes. They handle Mayle's mystery plot by reducing it to a couple of lines mentioning that no one knows where Le Coin Perdu comes from.
Another change mentioned in the commentary is that Klein left the option of returning to the London job open, to increase the dramatic tension. He forgets that to Mayle fans, wine that tastes like sewage—which hurts the vineyard's prospects and thus endangers Max's chance to evolve into Peter Mayle—creates more than enough tension. Even if Mayle did write a book called Anything Considered, the idea that a Mayle protagonist might seriously consider willingly returning to the hectic outside world once he's eaten and sipped wine in Provence is simply absurd.
Fortunately, Russell Crowe isn't trying too hard to convince you that he's a ruthless trader in the early stages of the movie. If you don't see through him immediately, your picture of Max will become clearer when you see him stuck in a pool a few scenes later. At first, he's struggling against the water that's starting to fill, but he's quickly lying back and floating. He plays the nasty Max with a laid-back winking style that suggests he just wants to get these obligatory scenes over with and get to evolving into Peter Mayle as much as we want him to.
While this may sound like a recipe for a movie with the bouquet of a wet dog, it works better than it should when translating Peter Mayle to the big screen. Take out the plot and rush through the character development, and you have more time to watch Max motorcycle along those beautiful Provencal roads, enjoy a festival with Fanny, and wander about the vineyard taking in the scenery. Tellingly, Klein and Scott do leave in an elaborate description of a "simple meal" at the Duflot home that turns out to be anything but. When Crowe delivers a shallow performance, it's not because he can't go deeper, it's because he knows we don't want to see it.
If you're a fan of Mayle, that feast with the civet of wild boar at its centerpiece is the moment you wanted to see on the big screen, not the mystery's denouement. Mayle's writing brings to life a daydream about the good life, and that's what A Good Year brings to the screen. It doesn't have the bouquet of an Oscar winner, but it's gentle on the palate like a Mayle novel. It's not a perfect translation, since Mayle's appeal depends a lot on a descriptive style that can't be totally translated to visuals, but A Good Year does a good job of recreating Mayle's imagery and milieu.
If you've seen any of the Mr. Hulot movies, you'll notice a few homages in a slapstick scene in the swimming pool, Max's battle with a troublesome GPS system in his tiny rental car, and the fact that Duflot's dog is named Tati, after famed French actor/director Jacques Tati, who played Hulot. Tati also show up in a montage of film clips in a symphony performance later.
The French performers here—Didier Bourdon, Isabelle Candelier (as Duflot's wife), and Marion Cotillard—are adept at adding physicality to their performances in scenes like the one in which Fanny rejects Max in her crowded restaurant. These supporting actors make the farcical aspects of A Good Year shine.
One of the things you'll like most about A Good Year is a score that combines soft rock, jazz, and French standards to create a sonic atmosphere as beautiful as the Provencal countryside in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The movie's shots of the Provencal countryside come across like a dream as well, even in the screener copy I saw.
The commentary here isn't just a commentary: "Postcards from Provence," which features analysis of the movie by Scott and Klein, is a multimedia presentation which interrupts the movie for featurettes that explain how the movie crew fixed up the swimming pool or the cafe, or show Peter Mayle himself talking about wine and Provencal life. There are nine little inserts which add around 27 minutes to the film's running time if you watch them as part of the commentary; the inserts can also be watched separately. Some of these were interesting, but I found the format long for one sitting.
The commentary actually takes away from the movie a little bit, since Scott and Klein show signs of having been ambitious in their character study aims. Thankfully, A Good Year doesn't reach their goals; the flashbacks play more like variations on Psych than deeply emotional drama, and Crowe manages to keep things from getting too heavy.
Also among the extras are three trailers, an extended promo shot in which Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott (shot in arty black-and-white) talk about the movie, and three music videos sung by Crowe, who performs with his band. Not bad.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're not a fan of Peter Mayle's writing already, you probably won't think much of A Good Year. There's more dramatic tension in a segment of Rachael Ray's $40 a Day. Face it, the odds of Rachael overspending on lunch and ending up making ketchup and mustard soup for dinner are much better than the odds that Max will stay in London. A lot of you will find this one a yawner.
And what's this adapting a mystery and taking out the plot? Nobody would do that to James Bond. Um, scratch that. Maybe they would.
Not many people did live through A Good Year; it took in $7,459,300 domestically and a slightly better $31,757,420 overseas, according to Box Office Mojo. That's just about enough to pay for the $35 million production, not for any advertising or similar expenses.
A Good Year isn't exciting or dramatically convincing, but it represents Mayle's brand of leisurely escapism reasonably well. This film isn't just slow paced, it's defiantly so. The trappings of a Hollywood story are there, regrettably, but fortunately they aren't taken too seriously.
If you've had pleasant experiences in print with Mr. Mayle's Permanent Holiday (or let your mind wander down to the Keys with similarly-minded Jimmy Buffett), you'll find A Good Year a guilty pleasure along the same lines. Otherwise, you'll find this travelogue thinly disguised as a movie just plain guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• "Postcards from Provence" -- Multimedia Presentation with Commentary and Making-Of Segments
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