There are a number of reasons why some people will not like “You Will Be My Son,” a small French film produced in the region of Saint Emilion, about a wine maker, on a vast estate he has owned and run for 40 years, and his son who is approaching the age when he should think of taking over, and his father’s selfish and brutal intention to come up with a “better son” to succeed him. But there’s no “action”! No explosions! The only “pop” is a cork being pulled from a bottle of red. No mansions burn down. Nobody gets shot. Only 5 seconds of sex — or it could be wrestling under the covers. No skin, except a shirtless young man in a wine vat. And no roaring car chases across the countryside, although the young man does get drunk and drive his car off the road—but survives. Yes, one man dies, but not how we expect.
Yet this film raises moral issues large and small that we could talk about for years. For there are few questions more subtle and profound than those which concern the love owed between father and son.
But this is a combination of “Downton Abbey” and the Gospel of Luke’s Prodigal Son. And who could not love that? Both “Son” and “Abbey” are about estates threatened by division or extinction, the obligations of fatherhood and the hunger for offspring as guarantees of one’s own immortality, of alienation and return, of forgiveness and its refusal.
The story open with a coffin slid down a ramp into a furnace as the flames lick its sides until its contents are retrieved in a big jar and handed to a slender young man. It is Martin Marseul, the ashes are his father Paul. Martin comments to the undertaker that the scent of the wood would not mix smoothly with the taste of the wine his father so seriously consumed. The undertaker responds that it’s all just ashes now.
Paul (Niels Arestrup) is a short, fat, bearded tyrant utterly incapable of loving his son; we learn however that he himself was fatherless, raised by the estate owner, whose ashes he keeps on an altar-like table in the depths of the company’s wine cellar, and who secretly inserts the adopted father’s ashes into the wine barrels. When the trusted manager Antoine (Patrick Chenais) begins to die of pancreatic cancer, Martin, like a loyal puppy, promises his father his support, only to be ignored. We identify with Martin, a long distance runner, generous, reasonably talented and married to a strong, beautiful woman anxious to bring forth their child. But Martin is emotionally fragile because the father has never loved him and even scorns his running.
When Francois’s son Philippe returns from California, where he has studied wine-making, to assist his father, Paul is captivated by him, dotes on him and takes him to a high class Paris reception where Paul is to receive the Legion of Honor. There he even allows the society leaders to get the impression that Phillipe is his son. That this self-absorbed cad would receive France’s highest honor is either a false note in the script or Legrand’s comment on the corruption of once great French institutions.
Nevertheless it enriches one of the film's most effective sub-plots: the moral struggle within Phillipe, who does not want to hurt his friend Martin but who would become instantly rich and powerful if he allows Paul, against Francois’s wishes, to legally adopt him. Significantly, the more tangled the plot becomes, the more the tension rises, the more they all drink, the more the wine itself becomes personified, indeed a menace.
The ending, which I shall not reveal, flows brilliantly from the characters themselves, to provide a solution which is ingenious, immoral—and just.