Thursday, April 18, 2024

“WIDOW CLICQUOT”

THE STORY – The story behind the Veuve Clicquot champagne family and business that began in the late 18th century.

THE CAST – Haley Bennett, Tom Sturridge, Sam Riley, Anson Boon, Leo Suter, Ben Miles, Natasha O’Keeffe, Cecily Cleeve, Paul Rhys, Ian Conningham, Christopher Villiers, Cara Seymour, Phoebe Nicholls, Nick Farrell, Chris Larkin & Mark Tandy

THE TEAM – Thomas Napper (Director) & Erin Dignam (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 89 Minutes


Everyone knows the name Veuve Clicquot. Those two words, printed on a distinctive yellow label, are a sign of distinction attached to one of the finest champagnes in the world. If you don’t know the French language, though, you wouldn’t know that “Veuve” means “widow” and that the champagne is named for its maker, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, who saved her deceased husband’s vineyard from ruin by innovating the winemaking process to produce some of the most exquisite vintages in winemaking history. She was one of the world’s first female entrepreneurs, doing whatever she could to ensure the vineyard stayed solvent. Not many people know her story, which is why Thomas Napper’s “Widow Clicquot” is such an exciting prospect. While the film is formally daring in ways that most biopics are not, it also loses much of what made Barbe-Nicole such a historically significant figure. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, albeit a gorgeously appointed one.

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (Haley Bennett) first met her husband, François Clicquot (Tom Sturridge), on their wedding day. They are both young and idealistic, with François having grand dreams about turning the family’s winery into one of the best in France, experimenting with everything in the winemaking process in pursuit of producing the best bottle of wine possible. He teaches Barbe-Nicole the entire process, from planting the grapes to bottling and distributing and introducing her to his friend and partner (and, it is implied, lover) Louis Bohne (Sam Riley), who would become her partner in selling the vineyard’s wines after François’s untimely death. Though she has little knowledge of how to run a business, she convinces her father-in-law Phillippe (Ben Miles) to let her run the company as she sees fit. Eventually, she comes up with a dangerous plan to sell the wine she and François worked so hard to perfect: Sneaking a boat around Napoleon’s naval blockades so that when he is finally defeated, her bottles would be available to all the sparkling wine connoisseurs in Russia before anyone else’s.

So far, so standard, but Erin Dingam and Christopher Monger’s screenplay weaves two timelines together to often thrilling effect, showing us Barbe-Nicole’s attempts to move on after her husband’s death, as scenes from her life with him intrude on her present when she least expects it. The screenplay doesn’t move between the two timelines without reason, but it also doesn’t make the mistake of using flashbacks to remind Barbe-Nicole of some lesson François taught her. “Widow Clicquot” is more about Barbe-Nicole’s grieving process than her process of becoming one of the world’s foremost winemakers. This would flatten her story far more if Napper didn’t direct with such verve, creating indelible images of fires on the vineyard’s hills warming the vines during cold evenings, sweeping us up into the romance that grew between Barbe-Nicole and François with the aid of a stirring score; elegantly layering the two timelines on top of each other to make them feel like one. Always moving forward and never back. In one of the film’s most inspired visual schemas, Barbe-Nicole’s clothing indicates to us which timeline we are in: Widow’s black in the present day and bridal white in flashbacks. It’s never difficult to tell which timeline we’re in, even though the film moves between them without warning. This gives the film an energy that a more straightforward approach likely wouldn’t have, engaging the audience on every level.

Unfortunately, the film is so focused on Barbe-Nicole’s grief that it ends up shortchanging her winemaking innovations. Scenes in the cellar with her tasting different blends, looking through different glasses, and talking about giant “frog eye” bubbles are breezed through without much context, never showing her perspective on how to solve all the problems with making champagne. Nor does it dive into the “riddling” process she developed with her cellar master Antoine de Müller. While the film doesn’t explore this aspect of her life as much, it does give a lot of screentime to her budding business acumen, with numerous scenes of men telling her that she can’t or shouldn’t do something, followed by Barbe-Nicole finding a way to prove them wrong and do things her way. François had spent so much money trying to perfect the wine that the Clicquots were practically bankrupt. Still, Barbe-Nicole did whatever she had to to ensure the winery stayed operational and that her workers were paid. Her plan to evade Napoleon’s naval blockades around Russia shows a mind always thinking several steps ahead, marking her as someone far ahead of her time.

While the film’s climax at a trial for Barbe-Nicole is invented (it is said that she never left the vineyard after her husband’s death), it works as a concise way to show all the constraints she had to live under as a woman and how this path was only open to women of the time as widows carrying on their husbands’ work. This is a far cry from women’s workplace opportunities today. However, there’s still something exciting about a woman bucking convention over a century before such actions would become more commonplace, and the script gives her several cheer-worthy moments that manage to not feel like pandering to a modern-day audience.

As Barbe-Nicole, the film rests mainly on Haley Bennett’s shoulders, and she is magnificent. The actor’s porcelain doll-like beauty has always hidden a spine of steel, and this role proves a perfect match for her unique blend of strength and fragility. As a widow at the age of 27, surrounded by men who did not share her and François’s vision, Barbe-Nicole was mostly on her own. Bennett shows how the devastation Barbe-Nicole felt upon losing François fermented into a determination to see his vision through, with or without help. In the film’s opening narration, she talks about how the need to create is connected to our need to understand ourselves better. Bennett embodies that throughout, tracking Barbe-Nicole’s growth from a young, naïve girl to a successful businesswoman who knows her worth. The way she holds her face is sometimes all we need to see to determine where we are in time, going from the wide-open flush of young love to the clear-eyed hardness of someone who has already lost everything and thus is unafraid of losing it again.

Even when “Widow Clicquot” feels like it gives a large part of Barbe-Nicole’s legacy short shrift, Bennett brings her to such vivid life that the film still works as a testament to her intrepid character. As fizzy, bold, and complex as the wine itself, Bennett is the special ingredient that brings all of Napper’s strong craft together and makes the film such a joy to watch.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Haley Bennett's singular mix of strength and fragility is put to excellent use in this gorgeously shot, occasionally thrilling dramatization of the life of the famed "Grand Dame of Champagne."

THE BAD - So much of what made Barbe-Nicole Clicquot such a fascinating historical figure is either left out or glossed over.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Haley Bennett's singular mix of strength and fragility is put to excellent use in this gorgeously shot, occasionally thrilling dramatization of the life of the famed "Grand Dame of Champagne."<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>So much of what made Barbe-Nicole Clicquot such a fascinating historical figure is either left out or glossed over.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"WIDOW CLICQUOT"