Like the elixirs that Barbe-Nicole (Haley Bennett) so carefully tends to at her vineyard, Widow Clicquot takes time to come into its fullest potential. Initially, it appears a sticky-sweet tale of love, as manifested by its heroine’s determination to carry on the vision of her late husband François (Tom Sturridge). But it takes on added layers as Barbe-Nicole reveals the breadth of her ambition, and as her rosy recollections of her marriage give way to thornier ones — ultimately yielding a drama that feels more substantive than its 89-minute run time might suggest, if not quite rich enough to leave its own lasting legacy.
Rooted in the history behind the still-renowned champagne Veuve Clicquot, Widow Clicquot arrives amid a bumper crop of biopics about brands. Like most of the others, it’s not exactly a commercial, but does have the PR-friendly side effect of bolstering the company’s image.
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Through Erin Dignam’s script — based on the biography by Tilar J. Mazzeo, and brought to life with “personal guidance from the brand’s archivist” — the familiar yellow label becomes a symbol of enduring love, of female empowerment, even of cutting-edge technological advancement. (Albeit of the sort that looks far less radical 200 years later.)
Where the relative contemporaneity of origin tales like Air or BlackBerry or Flamin’ Hot positioned them as reflections of our current corporate culture, though, this movie’s historical setting gives it the romanticism of a costume drama.
It begins with François’ funeral in 1805, where Barbe-Nicole stands nearly numb with grief. But she’s snapped into action when her father-in-law, Philippe (Ben Miles), reveals plans to sell his late son’s vineyards to Claude Möet. Unwilling to relinquish François’ passion project, Barbe-Nicole pleads to be allowed to keep them for herself, and to continue his efforts to perfect the art of winemaking. As Widow Clicquot charts her progress, it braids in memories of her time with François.
As with most biopics of this nature, the question isn’t so much if she’ll succeed but how, and what it means in the big picture. The deck is stacked against Barbe-Nicole from the start. She battles poor weather and rocky financials and Napoleon’s strict trade embargo, much of which the story barrels through with the brisk efficiency of a Wikipedia page. But no hurdle proves more difficult to overcome than the fact of her gender, as men from her father-in-law to her workers to her rivals doubt her ability and challenge her authority.
Veuve Clicquot‘s 19th-century-girlboss version of feminism goes down perhaps too easy, with a plainly sympathetic heroine and villains who just come out and declare things like “she, a woman, is not capable of running this vineyard.” If there’s much nuance or ambivalence to Barbe-Nicole’s feelings about her own station, the script barely lets on.
Barbe-Nicole’s personal life, on the other hand, tells a more complex and correspondingly more gripping story. The couple’s mutual adoration is apparent from the first moments. “It seems impossible that anything will ever grow here again,” she sighs in voiceover from his funeral. “A great hush has fallen across the vines. Your absence clings to everything.”
Flashbacks show the young lovers utterly smitten with each other. Though they were not a love match, Barbe-Nicole is enchanted by this unconventional gentleman who quotes Voltaire, sings to his grapes and writes florid love letters describing their marriage as “the secret to perfect happiness.” He, in turn, is moved by her warmth and openness, and elated by how quickly she takes to winemaking under his tutelage.
But as Barbe-Nicole presses on with François’ dream business, the memories that cut in become heavier, sadder, pricklier. We see how François’ quirks gave way to more erratic, volatile and even violent impulses in the grip of untreated mental illness. Bennett’s sensitive performance pulls us into her growing anguish and fear, both for him and of him. Meanwhile, Bryce Dessner’s bold score blurs together past and present through the incorporation of diegetic noises, so that the clang of broken glass becomes an unbearable cacophony reverberating between Barbe-Nicole’s stress now and François’ mania then.
If the business half of Widow Clicquot is why Thomas Napper’s film exists at all, the marriage half is what makes the entire thing worth watching. As vexed as Barbe-Nicole may be by frog-eyed bubbles or spoiled bottles, such dry business concerns simply can’t muster the emotional intensity of her ups and downs with François.
In combination, however, they form an engaging and fitfully moving portrait of an almost accidental trailblazer. “When they struggle to survive, they become more reliant on their own strength,” Barbe-Nicole says of her grapevines. “They become more of what they were meant to be.”
It’s a just-cute-enough metaphor for her own journey, which sees her pushing herself through setback after setback to evolve into the world-famous winemaker we already know her to be. And Widow Clicquot turns out to be a fairy-tale romance after all — not one between Barbe-Nicole and François, but between Barbe-Nicole and the champagne empire that still bears her name.
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