Are you mad, Max?
–Gemma (Archie Panjabi)
Fanny Chanel (Marion Cotillard) is prettily, perfectly French. In Ridley Scott’s labored romantic comedy, she’s rather the embodiment of France, or more accurately, the sensual, intellectual, seductive notion of France — and especially Provence — that pervades the world that is not-France. Fanny, a thoroughly charming and independent-minded café owner, is precisely the poster girl for this enduring impression.
As lovely as she may be, however, Fanny has her work cut out for her in A Good Year, a movie that begins with the cutesy phrasing, “A few vintages ago.” Yes, you’re in wine country. For a moment, this situation is quaint and sweet, especially as you watch Albert Finney (as Uncle Henry) play chess with Freddy Highmore (as young Max). Henry owns a vineyard in France, the orphaned Max visits during the summers. They share a love for competition, they understand one another. Even if Max cheats at chess and pretends he doesn’t, Henry appreciates his determination to win, and so, just lets him know he knows, and lets the boy figure out which path to take. “Wine,” he instructs, “always whispers in your mouth with completely unabashed honesty every time you take a sip.” Little boys are another story.
That much is more than apparent in the next sequence. “Many vintages later,” Max has grown up to be a ruthless London stock market trader, played by Russell Crowe (just how Freddy Highmore is transformed into Crowe is a question the movie cannot answer). He’s a master at his craft, charging up his minions (whom he calls “lab rats”) to yell and wave their hands in the air, to buy or sell instantly and unthinkingly. He susses out the situation, they follow his lead, and they all make money. Everyone knows that his methods aren’t exactly right, but they’re more or less legal and everyone likes to be rich and feel powerful. Happy times.
With that, Max’s life changes. Henry has died and left him the Provençal chateau and vineyard, though he has spoken with Henry for some 10 years. When asked by his assistant Gemma (Archie Panjabi) how this has happened, Max shrugs and looks briefly pensive: “Something to do with me becoming an asshole,” he says (good of him to explain, as you may have missed the very insistent representation of same in the previous scene). Advised that he must clear up the paper work tout suite, Max heads to France in order to sell the place and get right back on the job as soon as possible.
Max’s life choices are quickly laid out in the most obvious way. The estate is beautiful, if run down, the locals are appealingly eccentric, and London is conveniently made less attractive, when Max is busted for the latest not-quite-right deal he made. Gemma tells him to stay put for a while, and so he does, wandering through the house, his immediate, material links to the place marked by a tomato stain on his white shirt as he strides over the grounds. While Max is here depicted as a robust, dynamic sort, he is also caught between moments — of time and self.
On one hand, Max’s Treo keeps him in constant touch with his current life, barking commands to Gemma or his lawyer Charlie (Tom Hollander). On the hand, he’s prone to drop off into nostalgic mushiness whenever he glimpses an aging emblem of his childhood — the waterless swimming pool, the grown-over tennis court, the table outdoor table still adorned with Henry’s cigar in an ashtray. This latter inclination is rendered in the most pedestrian way — flashbacks that occur on the site where he gazes — but as they feature more interactions between Finney and Highmore, they’re more than welcome (you’d be forgiven for wishing this relationship formed the movie’s core, or at least more of its running time).
As little Max and Henry play tennis, swim, and share life lessons, big Max contemplates his life now. No surprise, he begins to wonder how he became an asshole, and finds some help in this investigation from the locals. These include earthy vigneron Duflot (Didier Bourdon) and his voluptuous, happy-to-be-house-cleaning wife Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier) — who have a little dog who pees on Max’s shoe (ha ha). Not for nothing is the dog named Tati, after Jacques, whose 1953 Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday made more original observations of French daily details. Tended to by his uncle’s employees, Max begins to see the good life in store for him, a foreigner with loads of money in the South of France.
That said, Crowe brings a welcome energy to his obvious role. He also proves an able physical comedian, though his subtle glances and gestures are more effective than the broad galumphs, as when Max falls face-first into a pile of manure at the bottom of the swimming pool. At this point, he meets Fanny. She remembers him from another encounter, when he almost ran her over with his speeding car while she rode her bicycle to work in town. As she stands over him, refusing to help him up from the pool bottom, he’s smitten. She’s glorious, beautiful, grounded, in a word, as he puts it, “fantastic.” The film plays coy for a minute, interjecting yet another young beauty for Max’s delectation: Yankee interloper Christie (Abbie Cornish) arrives to claim she’s Henry’s long-lost, unacknowledged daughter; she also reads Death in Venice (to show she’s got sand) and happens to be from Nappa Valley and so knows everything about running a vineyard that Max does not (which is, really, everything).
The dilemma for Max is whether he should return to his fast-paced, brilliant life, but the plot is irrelevant to the film’s celebration of France, whether embodied by Fanny or articulated by Duflot, who warns Max against pursuing Fanny, because, “It is rumored that she will let no man near her heart.” That little bit of wisdom is enough to send Max straight toward her, and so the film continues to plod along its well-worn path.