Back To Burgandy details a year in the life of a fictional wine-making family in Burgundy. The taste of the family wines propel the characters back into the past, wrinkling up time for the characters.
Jean (Pio Marmaï) left his family and his birthplace of Burgundy ten years ago to tour the world. Learning of his father’s imminent death, he returns to his childhood home. There, he reunites with his sister Juliette (Ana Girardot), and his brother Jérémie (François Civil).
Their father passes away just before the harvest begins. Over the course of a year, in sync with the rhythm of the seasons, the three young adults rediscover and reinvent their familial bonds, maturing and blossoming along with the wine they are making.
Interview with Cédric Klapisch
After Chinese Puzzle, an urban film shot in New York, why did you want to make Back to Burgundy, a film with a rural setting?
First off, I almost made this film before Chinese Puzzle. I wanted to make a film about wine as early as 2010. That year, I contacted some winemakers I know – I had never been involved in a grape harvest, and I was curious to see how they worked. I said to myself – without really knowing why – that there was something significant to it. Then JeanMarc Roulot allowed me to make a photo series about harvesting on his vineyard. After that, I was interested in observing in detail how the landscape changes with the passing of the seasons. Over the next six months, I returned numerous times to Burgundy, looking for a tree – the perfect tree to demonstrate the passing of time and the cycle of the seasons. I met Michel Baudoin, a photographer who is very familiar with the vineyards of Burgundy, and he helped me in my search. Finally, we agreed on two cherry trees – one in Meursault, the other in Pommard. It was important to find just the right framing, the right lens, and the right time to photograph it. Michel agreed to play along, and for a year, he photographed the trees each week (always at the same time of day). Every session, he would take a still photo and also film for one minute. Thus he ended up with fifty-two photos and moving images of these two trees amidst the vines.
Without knowing exactly what it was, I felt there was material to make a film there when I looked at those photos. In 2011, I returned to watch the harvesting, but unlike the previous year, the weather was gray, it had rained a lot, and the grapes were much less beautiful. I could see clearly just how linked the winemaking world was to the nuances of weather.
Finally, in that same year, 2011, I decided to begin production on Chinese Puzzle, because [producer] Bruno Levy and I felt it was the right moment to reconnect with the actors in that series – almost ten years after Russian Dolls… Three years later, when I was finished with Chinese Puzzle, I asked myself whether I was now ready to make this film about wine. What’s crazy is, during the three years I dedicated to Chinese Puzzle, Burgundy went through a period of hail storms, and the crops were partially ruined! So practically speaking, the film could not have been shot during that period anyway.
What does wine represent to you?
No need to beat around the bush: clearly, for me, wine is my father. I know wine through my father – who drinks practically nothing other than Burgundy. When I began drinking (around 17-18 year old) he let me taste his wines… It’s thanks to him that I learned about wine. Until recently, he would take my sisters and me to wine tastings on Burgundy vineyards. It was a kind of ritual, once every two years or so… When I was twenty-three and studying in New York, I was a waiter in a French restaurant. We must have been fifteen waiters and waitresses, but I realized that I was the only one who knew how to recommend a wine. The Americans on the wait staff would ask me, “But how do you tell the difference between a Côte du Rhône and a Bordeaux?” I realized at that moment that wine is its own culture…
With literature, one might say, one must read a lot to understand the distinctions between different authors. With wine, one must drink a lot of it to identify the different regions and their distinct flavors…
I was aware that it was my father who passed down this wine culture and this interest in the Burgundy region. So wine for me quickly took on this association with the idea of transmission. I knew intuitively that if I wanted to make a film about wine, it was because I wanted to talk about family – what we inherit from our parents, what parents pass down to their children.
Burgundy seemed like an obvious choice to me, although in the meantime I have “discovered” other wine regions, notably Bordeaux.
In Burgundy, the wine businesses are generally more family-run, while Bordeaux vineyards are often bigger, and more of the work is industrialized, to the point of being managed by large corporations. The film’s issues would have been completely different. In a certain way, the choice of another French wine region (Alsace, Languedoc, Côtes du Rhône, Beaujolais, etc.), would have meant developing the themes very differently…
Family is often present in your films. On the other hand, this is the first time you have filmed nature…
It’s really strange, to shoot in the middle of vineyards. I had not realized, until I got there, that I’d never made films that weren’t set in cities. Before Back to Burgundy, I had only filmed people in streets and in buildings… Whether in Paris, London, Saint Petersburg, Barcelona, or New York, I was making the same film. Each time, I tried to examine the relationship between a particular city and the psychology of the people within it. But then, after eleven films, I felt the need to change, to see something else…and to turn to nature… In the same way that I cannot spend a year in Paris without ever going to the countryside or the ocean, I felt the necessity to film something that I had never filmed before. This need for nature is stronger than I was. I don’t know whether it’s related to my age, but I think it is also accompanied by a sociological change that I’m feeling these days. The relationship between city-dwellers and agriculture and food is changing. It’s not just a fad. It has become very important for people who live in cities to thin the border between the urban and rural worlds. The documentary Tomorrow speaks eloquently on this subject. The fact that, to a great extent, we live in the virtual world ultimately makes us want to recover a concrete relationship between things. Without a doubt, our feelings of frustration are accentuated by the distances caused by virtuality. It’s a new area of interest in the culinary arts (and wine), which for me means a return to more direct, more basic things.
Back to Burgundy gathers together many different subjects…
Just like wine.What’s in a glass of wine? The terroir is in there, which is to say the combination of a particular climate, the sunshine, rainfall, the geology of the soil. Every element gives a scent, a flavor, a particular density to the wine. It’s also the element of human intervention – the choice of the type of viticulture, the growing methods. It’s fascinating to see how in Meursault there are a hundred different proprietors and really a hundred different methods of “interpreting” this terroir. When a winegrower signs off a bottle, it is like a director signing off on a film. It is a concept of authorship. It’s all there to be found in a glass of wine… This complexity is there. It is the time and the space, the history and the geography. The marriage of man and nature. I absolutely needed to make the film tell all that… It is an extremely sophisticated world. That’s the reason I like talking about wine. In the film, we follow the production of wine over the course of one year. In parallel, we follow more than ten years in the life of a family of winemakers. I try to find the connects between these two – following the cycles of nature and the stages of these three individuals’ evolutions. One is first an infant, then an adult, then a parent… Are these human changes, these stages of life, comparable to the seasons of nature?
In Back to Burgundy, you have effectively not just filmed nature, but also the seasons…
Bruno Levy had to be convinced to shoot over an entire year. In terms of production, he preferred to do the filming in two seasons instead of four. But I told him that that wouldn’t work, that the cycle of nature had to be respected. We couldn’t cheat. The beautiful colors of autumn — they only exist for fifteen days. We had to shoot during that period; otherwise, it wouldn’t work. Also for the harvesting, even two weeks before, we don’t know when that’s going to happen. On a vineyard like Jean-Marc Roulot’s, the harvest lasts between a week and ten days in the good years. When Ana crushes the grapes in the tanks, we only had four or five days when we could shoot that. We went back one day in January because it had snowed. And for spring, the fruit trees’ flowers bloom for just one week. The vines grow big green leaves in only three weeks. The whole film was made upside-down. We didn’t choose the filming dates, it was really nature that decided the shooting schedule.
On Back to Burgundy, you’ve reunited with your writing partner Santiago Amigorena. How did that reunion come about?
It had been fifteen years since we last worked together. We first worked together on Le péril jeune, and the last time on Not For, or Against! I didn’t want to write a film about wine alone. I even went to see some wine experts with the idea of writing it with them. And then I said, why go looking for someone on the moon when I have a childhood friend who knows wine so well? Santiago had just produced Natural Resistance, the documentary about wine by Jonathan Nossiter. He has the same tastes in wine that I have, and like me, he knows people like Alix de Montille and Jean-Marc Roulot. He was really a good person to work with on this subject. And it was a real joy to reconnect with him personally. The film asked for that, the idea that things improve with time is central. It’s true for wine, but it’s also true for friendships.
On the other hand, all of the language, all of the techniques linked to viticulture could be a little lost on the audience. Did you think about that when doing the writing?
The whole time. Santiago and I are into wine culture, but I quickly saw the film would not be possible without collaborating with someone who knew a lot more than we did about Burgundy. There were a thousand things that had to be deeply examined or discovered to write the film. And that was done directly with Jean-Marc Roulot at his place, where I had done the photos in 2010; he was always extremely welcoming and receptive. That collaboration was very important. He was always reviewing drafts of the script, correcting our “Parisian” phrases, and he imbued it with modern agriculture-world authenticity. He explained the difference between organic and biodynamic cultivation, between natural wine and traditional wine. He, as well as other Burgundy winemakers, spoke with us at length about modern agriculture in general. The concept is a bit expansive – sustainable agriculture, issues specific to Burgundy, etc. Sometimes, however, when Jean-Marc translated something we had written into winemaker parlance, I would re-translate that into a more universal language. When Juliette says, “The malo was really quick this year,” maybe 10% of French people know what she’s said. Yet we kept that phrase in – I surrounded it with elements that allow people to understand that she’s talking about a step in the winemaking process. We used this translation concept before, in dialog about the finance world in My Piece of the Pie – we accept that we don’t understand a specific technical term. Then there are times when we do translate them. So, it’s a phrase-by-phrase choice between being didactic and comprehensible on the one hand, and on the other, using the real language of people in these settings.
Did you try to keep a balance between all four seasons in the writing?
Yes. That’s also one of the problems that came up during editing. Ultimately, it isn’t very equal, but it was in the screenplay. What’s crazy is to note the similarity between the narrative story and the story of nature. And there, obviously, winter has suffered. We had many scenes that ended up being thrown out. In the film, winter is a waiting room, and in the editing, we sensed that spending as long in this “waiting room” as we spend on the stronger seasons did not make sense. So very clearly, winter got sacrificed.
And the relation between the characters? How did you arrive at the idea of focusing on siblings?
It came fairly quickly. At the beginning, in 2010, I was thinking about an idea I’d discussed with Romain Duris: a story of the relationship between a seventy-year-old father and his forty-year-old son. But when I tried to get started on the subject, I said to myself that I’d like it to be something closer to childhood. I wanted to talk about the passage into adulthood. So automatically I lowered the characters’ ages. And I went with the idea of two brothers and one sister – maybe to reverse my own history, since I had two sisters and was the only son. To play these siblings, I sought out actors I had wanted to film with. I had just met Pio Marmaï and thought would be perfect for the role, and he was also the ideal age. I had just worked with François Civil [on the series Call My Agent!], and I thought that he and Pio would make very believable brothers. From there, I looked for an actress who could go with them. If I’m being honest, I already had Ana Girardot in mind a little, but just the same, I saw a lot of actresses to make sure I was making the right choice. I needed a girl with the ability to survive between two very masculine guys! For that, Ana was by far the best. So I found myself with the three actors I wanted. It was great to see the three of them becoming like siblings. It’s crazy. At one moment, they took control of the film. At the beginning, it was a bit more the story of Jean/Pio Marmaï. Then, as we progress through the seasons, as we rewrote with Santiago, it became the story of these siblings. They took the film hostage by the beauty of their relationship. I began to feel Santiago and I we were becoming the narrators of what we saw before us. We let the time participate in building the story.
Was it easy to ensure the actors would be available all year round?
Yes. Ultimately, it’s the same as for a television series, except instead of telling them they are signing up for three seasons – as in TV, we talk about seasons (laughs) – you say you’ll be shooting the harvest at the end of August/beginning of September; then in autumn, around the end of October when the leaves are yellow-red; in winter in December/January; then in spring, in May or June. Schedule-wise, it’s like filming four different movies. And when we asked them if they could be free for three weeks in four different times of the year, they agreed. It was simple to resolve, because Ana, Pio and François were very enthusiastic about the idea of making the film. I think to do this, they had to turn down some other films, or schedule other projects to fit in the filming gaps…
And was it easy to tell a winegrower that you were going to release actors in his vineyard?
I’m sure this film would not have been possible without someone like Jean-Marc Roulot. He has a double life; he’s an actor and a winemaker. He knows how film shoots work. For him, it was unheardof luck. He told us: “It’s the first time I’m making a movie where I succeed in mixing my two lives.” He made the film by making wine! He was quite happy that the people he’s been working with for thirty years got to see him doing his other job. But I think he didn’t realize the intensity of this adventure. When he agreed to let us film at his place, he didn’t suspect that it was also going to be a powerful personal experience!
Was there an initiation, an apprenticeship for the actors before the filming began?
Yes, but very short, because they arrived three days before shooting started. But the first day, it was fairly mythic. They arrived at 11am, we went to lunch, and they drank eight kinds of Burgundy at the table. An atmosphere of “discovering the region.” At 2pm, they were already completely drunk. But it continued: right after that, we went to visit some other vineyards. We talked with different winemakers who, at each point, had them taste different wines, and really, all day, they just drank. It ended with a meal at Jean-Marc Roulot and Alix de Montille’s house. At the end of the night, all three of them were in a daze! I was almost scared – at one point, I said to myself, “What are we doing? This is nonsense!” Afterward, to be honest, that first day turned out to be super important; it’s really because of that, that I knew how to direct them in the sequence where they are sloshed. When filming, they can’t drink for real, so it’s necessary to recreate that state. There, I got a good glimpse of them, and I took notes. The consonants scene, for example, was inspired by that evening. So it may seem bizarre to say this, but it’s really part of the preparation. These experiences are part of our strange craft. For us, actors and directors, that’s part of the job. Of course, what accompanies all this is also the discovery of a greater sense of Burgundy. Beyond the joke, I can’t say I made the film just to drink. You can’t make this film without knowing Burgundy, which is to say, the reality of Burgundy’s climates as a UNESCO World Heritage site [a Climate combines a vineyard’s soil, grape variety, and expertise] with the people, the winemakers, the municipalities, the plots, the great growth, the first growth, the villages…the classification of wine… The actors were obliged to learn all that. They couldn’t play these characters without getting a glimpse of all this. The apprenticeship period during these three days accelerated this training, which was especially expanded thanks to the year of filming. That was also true for me. For example, I didn’t know anything about the winery work done in winter or spring. The fact that there are spring procedures, where one cuts the branches that have died in winter – the actors discovered that aspect of viticulture at the same time I did.
Speaking of drunkenness, one might wonder whether the end-of-harvest party scene isn’t more documentary than fiction…
It’s between documentary and fiction. Like the harvest at the beginning of the film. The harvesting is the harvesting! And within that reality, I insert the scenes where they throw the grapes at each other – it’s clear these aren’t really Jean-Marc Roulot’s grapes! There are completely-staged scenes mixed with others that are completely documentary. For the Paulée [the party celebrating the final harvest], we filmed a real Paulée from 8pm to midnight, then left to let the partiers finish their celebration. Four days later, we reconstructed what we had seen. Many of the people who were at the real party joined us, except this time it was a fake party, during where we would tell them to stop from time to time and where they drank grape juice instead of wine! But on the other hand, because they had lived the real celebratory moment at the end of these ten days of work on the vineyard, they knew how to reconstruct it particularly well. So it’s a very particular mix: fiction nourished by reality. Neither completely fiction nor completely documentary. This film is really a hybrid of those two approaches.
You evoke Maybe; Perhaps with the particular importance of the paternal figure – that’s also the case here with the father, when we see him in flashbacks. That’s also similar to the father character in Family Resemblances…
Certainly there are echoes of Family Resemblances, as it’s a story about family. When we started writing Back to Burgundy, I remember Santiago saying “It’s important to see the characters’ childhoods,” and I quickly agreed. And suddenly the character of the father, played by Eric Caravaca, was born. He’s great in the film. I had the idea of Eric because he did the narration for Santiago’s film Enfants Rouges, and I adore his voice. And I think that in Back to Burgundy, for the father’s offscreen voice to have that presence, it had to be the voice of Eric Caravaca. But like you say, in the film, it’s important to talk up-front about the father/son relationship. Plus, the more I’m getting old, the more I see how, at a certain point, men have a feeling of failure in their relationships with their fathers. Mothers are generally more present (sometimes too much so…). The feeling of absence, or the sense of remove we can feel from our fathers, is something to keep in mind when one becomes a father.
For you, is there a link between the world of filmmaking and that of wine?
I was saying there are three sources of inspiration for this film, but in fact there’s a fourth: the world of wine is quite comparable to the filmmaking world. There are some incredible similarities between the making of wine and the making of a film. The relationship to time is similar in the two disciplines, wherein one has to always be patient; shooting a film is a bit like a harvest; the editing is like the vinification: it happens in the cellar, and you aspire to ensure it will age well; and if all the Burgundy winegrowers use two kinds of grapes, the Pinot and the Chardonnay, to make wines that are totally different, well, it’s the same. Even if another director used the same actors I did, it would not be the same… I find a lot of similarities between the two worlds, and I think winemakers like Jean-Marc Roulot practice a craft very close to my own.
Do you believe filmmakers get better with age? Do you feel this is true for yourself?
As you know…not all… There, also, it’s like wine (laughs). There are some that age well, and others that don’t. In any case, there really are those directors who age well. I came to that conclusion with Ken Loach, with I, Daniel Blake. Filmmakers like John Huston, Kurosawa, or Hitchcock got better with time. But there are also those directors who aged poorly. As far as I’m concerned, I hope… I don’t know if I’ll be better in ten years than I am right now. I’ve often said that among my own films, I find Le péril jeune the most successful. It was at my beginning…and nonetheless it’s strange, because I also think I’ve “made progress” since then. I still think I’m a better director now than I was then. But that isn’t to say I make better films. For me, that’s part of the great mystery of filmmaking. You work like crazy to have mastery and know-how, and basically that doesn’t ensure you’ll make a good film…
I’m also always troubled by the knowledge that a successful film, it really happens despite oneself. It’s beyond experience and mastery. Being aware of this gives me a certain spontaneity. I know I must make films by prioritizing desire and intuition. Each time, I know that intuition will push me into a project that will take me one or two years. Each time, I don’t know where I’m going when I start to go there, and I know that it’s important to feel that sensation of floating… When you are very sure of yourself, you’re not necessarily on the right path… It’s only much later that you discover whether you’ve made a good film or not. You can’t have prior knowledge. If I take wine as an example: to have a chance to age well, you can’t just do what you did last year. We must welcome the present with good will, taking nuances and bad weather into consideration. To be ceaseless and intense in our research without knowing what it will be nor where it hides. You might for example try to do things with urgence to maintain the intensity, but nonetheless remain patient. One must always be the searcher and the maintainer of an intensity…
After a good film, a good wine? Which one?
(laughs) In Burgundy, we drank exceptional wines that you can’t drink in Paris, either because they are too expensive, or because they’re impossible to find. I have discovered the white wine of Burgundy while doing this film, the Meursault in particular. Many on the team arrived saying they preferred red wine over white. I think all of them have left preferring white! They say the place where we shot, between Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, and Mersault, has the best white wines in the world, and I think they’re right.
It’s exceptional! Wine, it’s the human product, with a capital H. When I started on the screenplay with Santiago, we suspected we had something to say about the strange marriage between man and nature. This story has been unfolding for millennia, and it’s not just a story about grape juice… To do wine right, one must be an archivist of civilization, to have extremely diverse knowledge – in geology, agronomy, chemistry – extremely precise expertise…and all that, maybe, in service of drunkenness?
To make a film like this, it takes knowledge of many areas…
I like this scene in the film: To the departed father, the three children open one bottle of the father and one of the grandfather. Just by drinking a few sips, they get a fairly strong sense of who they each were. There is the time, the effort, the thoughts and the very content of life in these glasses… Essentially, with wine, we bottle nothing less than what it is to be human.