Peter Mayle is one of the rare writers whom I’ve been able to develop an antipathy toward without ever reading a word he’d written. It started in high school, when my French teacher, looking to kill a couple of weeks without having to teach us un mot simple, had my class watch the full BBC miniseries adapted from his book A Year in Provence. Certainly, this was a welcome respite from her Arkansas-accented French lessons (to this day, my reading comprehension is middling but my pronunciation is absolutely atrocious), but still I bristled at the series. Even at the tender age of 17 I was able to catch a whiff of merde de taureau in the way the gruff, citified onscreen Mayle (John Thaw) gained in both wisdom and serenity through his dealings with all those eccentric sel-de-la-terre types. The idea that the folk wisdom of the rural poor and working classes somehow offers all the answers to life’s questions can be appealing, but it’s necessarily undercut by our knowledge that those promulgating this idea are only exposed to this folk wisdom in situations where they have no other choice — there are undoubtedly plenty of eccentric, salt-of-the-earth types in London, but a guy like Mayle would never take the time to speak to them longer than is necessary to ensure that they don’t scratch the Jag while parking it.
So Mayle somehow managed to be a reverse-snob and a regular old snob at the same time — that’s fine, he’s hardly the first. I would probably never have given the man another thought if he hadn’t spent the ensuing decade turning his adventures in Provence into a cottage industry, with books like Toujours Provence, Encore Provence, and several novels that take place at least partly in the region (his latest book, released last week, is Provence A-Z, an anecdotal encyclopedia of — guess where!). The man has built a highly remunerative career on kindly condescension and gentle cultural imperialism. Nice work, if you can get it.
So when I heard that a Mayle book was being brought to the big screen, and that it was a Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe collaboration, well, let’s just say I didn’t pop open a bottle of champagne. Crowe is one of our finest current actors, but in recent years he has squandered his talents on enough pretentiously middle-brow movies that my reaction to the announcement of any new project is usually a wince. And Ridley Scott, who directed Crowe in the overrated, overheated Gladiator — the only nice thing I can say about him is that, compared to his brother Tony (Domino), he’s hardly a hack at all. So it was with a mix of dread and anticipatory boredom that I settled into my seat at the theater, trying to hold my breath as the braying middle-aged woman next to me removed her boots and described her just-concluding hot flash to her companion. As the movie began, and I ticked off all the plot points so thoroughly spelled out in the trailer, I longed for nothing more than its conclusion and my celebratory cigarette. And yet, and yet, gradually, without meaning or wanting to, I found myself enjoying the film.
To be sure, A Good Year is, structurally, nothing more than a rickety assembly of the creakiest cinematic clichés. But Scott and the screenwriter, Marc Klein (Serendipity), have sanded and painted their raw materials until they almost have the gleam of something new and solid. Crowe plays Max Skinner, a greedy, amoral wanker with a vocation as a bond trader and an avocation as a heartless womanizer. When his uncle Henry (played in flashbacks by Albert Finney) dies suddenly, with no will, Max inherits his chateau and small vineyard in Provence. He flies down from London planning to do no more than take possession of the property and arrange its immediate sale, but a kerfluffle over a particularly Machiavellian business maneuver provides the film an excuse to keep him there long enough to fall in love with the land, the way of life, and, not incidentally, a beautiful local woman named Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard).
The film’s redemption, ironically, comes in its nonchalant handling of the redemption story. Unlike most films of its type, A Good Year goes surprising light on the piety — Max has no sudden epiphany, he just gradually acclimates to his environment and, as he begins to feel at home there, comes to realize its merits may outweigh those of his old life. Even Max’s romance with Fanny, though familiar and somewhat treacly, is treated in a casual way, not as the thing that suddenly redefines his entire existence but as one of many important events that change his outlook. And in a testament to the preview-editor’s “art,” most of the really awful lines of dialogue in the trailer — which added so much to my dread of the film — aren’t nearly so terrible in context, where they’re far less emphatic statements.
Still, many of the film’s flaws are a challenge to overcome. Max’s character arc is entirely predictable, and it’s even undercut by Crowe’s performance, which is entirely too affable and good-humored in the early scenes, when he’s supposed to be showing us why he’s such a worthless creep that he needs redeeming. Yet Crowe has such charisma that we forgive him that, along with everything else. And there’s plenty more that must be forgiven, including some truly witless “comic” scenes, such as when Crowe picks up his rental car, and it’s one of those European two-seaters small enough to fit inside a phone booth; or when he gets lost driving in a village and circles around a small square repeatedly in double-time, because sped-up film is always funny; or when he meets the estate’s vigneron and his dog promptly pees on Max’s shoe. In these early scenes, Scott and Klein try so hard to make the film funny and charming that if it were a first date you’d skip dessert and feign a headache. Yet, like more than a few anxious suitors, once it relaxes and stops hitting you over the head with its supposed charms, you may find that it’s not such a bad way to kill an evening.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
A Good Year / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | November 10, 2006 | Comments ()