WIDOW CLICQUOT (TIFF 2023) – Review by Kat Sachs

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To be frank, a sexy period drama about the life, love and labor of one Widow Clicquot sounds like the stuff of a Drunk History sketch, in no small part because it centers on champagne production. Surprisingly, then, Widow Clicquot is a compelling and sleekly executed endeavor, as intriguing as it is sometimes platitudinous.

Adapted from Tilar J. Mazzeo’s 2018 narrative history The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, Thomas Napper’s realization leans heavily into the romance between Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot (Haley Bennet)—known in France as the Grand Dame of Champagne—and her husband Francois Clicquot (Tom Sturridge), a relationship initially arranged between their families but that the film depicts, likely with some artistic license, as being as passionate as Francois’ love for champagne production.

It begins with Francois’ death, after which the widow (“veuve” in French, hence the drink’s name) Clicquot fights to maintain control of the Reims vineyard. Her father-in-law (Ben Miles) wants to sell to the nearby Moët family; Barbe-Nicole is determined to carry on Francois’ vision, which manifested itself in such unusual ways as singing to the vines but that was thwarted by a string of bad luck. Francois laments his failures in myriad flashbacks that punctuate the present-day narrative, reflecting also his tenuous mental health, and they are the very definition of melodramatic. That all of this is happening against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars feels like an afterthought, even as Barbe-Nicole conspires to circumvent the blockade to sell her vintages abroad.

Still, the melodrama is intoxicating. Haley Bennett, best known for the 2019 psychological thriller Swallow, stuns as the widow Clicquot, bringing rawness to an otherwise overwrought scenario. Despite the film’s overemphasis on her romances, what she accomplished was extraordinary. Not only was she running a business when it was largely illegal for women to do so under the Napoleonic Code (the film later explains this was permissible only if a woman was taking over for her deceased husband), she also undertook strides that revolutionized the industry, such as inventing the riddling table, which helped to rid champagne of sediment, and mixing the first blend of rosé champagne. The film may beatify Madame Clicquot to an exaggerated degree, but there’s no denying her accomplishments and the impact she had on the business.

The widow soon finds amorousness anew with her handsome sales agent, Louis Bohne (Sam Riley), who in real life helped traffic Veuve Clicquot champagne to the Russians during and after Napoleon’s blockade, including the now-legendary 1811 Comet vintage, considered to be the first “modern” Champagne. (In winemaking astrological events such as comets are thought to have a beneficial impact on the harvests. The Great Comet of 1811, from which the vintage takes its name, is seen in the film.) The rest, as they would say, is history.

Written by Erin Dignam and Christopher Monger (Temple Grandin), the script risks no subtlety, and Napper (Jawbone) is more or less competent in his direction of it. Yet the film’s cinematography, by the great Caroline Champetier (who’s worked with Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, Claude Lanzmann, and many other greats), elevates it extraordinarily. Interior shots recall those of a Jacques Rivette film, while shots outside in the vineyard are painterly à la Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners; add to that superb production design and historically accurate costumes, and the mise-en-scene accounts for it being more than the sum of its parts. The refinement of the aesthetic helps offset the broadness of the storytelling and the cloying sentimentality at the heart of the dual love stories and effete character study. The visual style exudes the elegance of champagne in the context of its sparkling wine narrative.

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Kat Sachs

Kat Sachs is a freelance film critic and programmer based in Chicago. She's the co-managing editor of Cine-File Chicago with her husband, Ben Sachs. In addition to Cine-File, she writes for the Chicago Reader and has contributed several pieces to MUBI. Highlights of her programming endeavors include a two-night retrospective of short films by Agnès Varda, a similar Barbara Hammer retrospective, the theatrical premiere of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr'.s PASSING STRANGERS AND FORBIDDEN LETTERS, and screenings of Dan Sallitt's HONEYMOON and ALL THE SHIPS AT SEA, the Chicago premiere of Joanna Arnow's I HATE MYSELF :), and a ten-week Frederick Wiseman series at Doc Films, entirely on 16mm, as well as a one-off screening of Wiseman's six-hour NEAR DEATH, also on 16mm.