You can’t choose your family,” goes the old saying. You Will Be My Son tells the story of what may happen when you try. It’s not a surprising story, but it is a satisfying one.
God, the Bible tells us, had a son, but sent him to die so that He could adopt the rest of us. (Romans 8:15: “...you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”) The results of that familial expansion have varied. But His own son? The one he sent to die? Just perfect — so obedient, so powerful. Score one for generation over adoption.
You Will Be My Son (Tu seras mon fils)
But then, God didn’t have to worry about Mom’s genes muddying the pool, and God didn’t have to run a top-flight winery in Bordeaux. These are the problems faced by Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup), easily the most monstrous and magnetic father to hit the screen since Royal Tenenbaum.
An older man on intimate terms with success and its attendant luxuries (he swoons over elegant shoes), Paul is facing a transitional period in an industry already fraught with year-to-year variability. His manager, Francois, is dying of cancer. Who will replace him? Paul’s son Martin would love a shot at the job, but, as Paul says, “It’s a vineyard, not a charity.”
Martin, he is convinced, doesn’t have what it takes. Not that the boy has ever had much of a chance to prove otherwise: Paul made up his mind long ago that the kid was a dud and never misses an opportunity to prove himself right. It’s a brutal spectacle. And yet...he’s probably right about Martin. Perhaps because of his sneering father, perhaps because of his deceased mother, perhaps because of something else, there is something lacking in him that no amount of gumption can supply. Yes, he’s a victim. No, he can’t be redeemed — not unless he gets away from the father whose approval he craves and will never receive.
Paul sees a possible solution in the arrival of Francois’s son Philippe. Philippe, who has come to visit his dying father, is already a successful winemaker in California — he had the sense to get out from under the paternal shadow, at least geographically. Confident, accomplished, simpatico, Philippe seems the perfect son. Except, he’s already got a father.
The drama that follows is saved from devolvement into grotesquerie by a number of elements. Foremost is Arestrup’s towering performance as Paul, a perfect man of the world. He doesn’t set out to be cruel; he sets out to be the triumphant master of his fate. No doubt, he would term his cruelty “frankness” or “realism.” If he sucks all the air out of a room, well, a fellow has to breathe. Second is director Gilles Legrand’s expert grounding of the action in the sleek and polished world of Premier Cru Bordeaux, where nature has already been tweaked and managed to a fault. (They graft vines, don’t they?) Third is the tart screenplay’s gradual revelation of Paul’s own story — he grows more human and interesting even as he becomes less humane and sympathetic.