November 30, 2009

Wrestling with the angel: Niki Caro and The Vintner’s Luck

1. The great disappointment
"The film is an absolute bloody mess. There is simply no way to get around this. This is a bad film. Something has gone catastrophically wrong. The wheels and the wings have fallen off somewhere in production and there is no excusing it." – Graeme Tuckett, Nine to Noon film reviewer, Radio New Zealand, November 12, 2009.
I make a habit of listening to Graeme Tuckett on RNZ and was impressed -- who wouldn’t be? -- by the unequivocal boldness of these and other comments about Niki Caro’s film The Vintner’s Luck. Said more in sorrow than in anger, but mostly in disappointment. That seems to be the spirit of the bulk of the reactions: there will have been worse films released in cinemas in 2009 but there will be no film more disappointing, in New Zealand at least. Elsewhere, they’ll probably just be confused.
A couple of months earlier, negative reviews started to filter back to New Zealand from the film’s debut at the Toronto Film Festival, but the Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviewers didn’t have the investment in Elizabeth Knox’s book as a much-loved cultural property that local reviewers like Tuckett – and, in the Listener, Knox fan David Larsen – did. If you can imagine a parallel world in which Jane Campion had made a dreary – and, worse, pointlessly unfaithful -- adaptation of An Angel at My Table, you would be close to grasping the scale of this disappointment. Make no mistake: Caro has taken Knox’s original, imaginative and impressively unusual novel and made a boring, incoherent and obscure – or maybe I mean inscrutable – film of it. But the book will survive this; good books tend to survive bad films. People will still be reading The Vintner’s Luck in five or 50 years but no one will be watching this film – and that’s partly because there is no way to follow this film, with its weird narrative elisions and mind-boggling lack of pace, unless you come to it with the book already in your head. To its readers it’s a disappointment that is best forgotten and not to be revisited. To non-readers it can only be a puzzle that doesn’t seem worth solving.

2. Angelic upstarts
"The book was a strange book, a book that took risks and was peculiar." – Elizabeth Knox, Radio New Zealand, November 19.
The Vintner’s Luck is a transgressive text in terms of its form, and in terms of its subject matter. Its underlying narrative context is the story of the creation of the world, the rebellion in heaven, the creation of humankind, and the expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve. The Vintner’s Luck makes use of diverse sources: the bible, the traditions of the medieval church, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet despite this, it is a post-Christian text rather than a Christian one. – Jane Stafford, from “Antipodean Theologies: Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck”, in Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction, edited by Jane Stafford and Anna Jackson, Victoria University Press, 2009.
The story is well-known, maybe even legendary. In 1995, writer Elizabeth Knox had a fever and was, for days, neither fully asleep nor fully awake, but in a kind of hallucinatory in-between state. In a dream, she saw and heard an angel on an island off the coast of California recount the story of his one great love affair; this was more or less the first 100 pages of the book, a lucid fever-dream dictation. Initially, the love story was to be set in Italy. After some research into viticulture, Knox shifted the setting to France (in her essay “My History with Wings” in her book The Love School, she suspects that the Californian Spanish Mission opening came from watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo – itself dream-like and endlessly inspirational).
In her story the angel, Xas, is a fallen angel – a twist that tends to hit readers with a jolt – and the background, as Jane Stafford says, is the rebellion in heaven familiar from Paradise Lost and reminiscent of Gnostic re-imaginings of celestial organisation and the roles of angels, God and Lucifer/Satan. Xas followed Lucifer from heaven to hell and there are some remarkable passages in which Knox describes the hell that Xas made his home in. I couldn't wait to see how Caro would do these scenes – scenes that, unless you have the imaginative flair of a Guy Maddin or Derek Jarman, probably required the scope and budget of a Peter Jackson production, not something as low-budget and limited as Caro’s film. Meaning that she hasn’t tried to do them.
In Burgundy in 1808, Xas encounters the peasant wine-maker Sobran Jodeau. They aim to meet annually on the same night in midsummer. Sobran marries a peasant woman, Celeste, and they have children. He prospers as a wine-maker. There are murders in the local community. He develops a close relationship with Baroness Aurora, owner of the nearby chateau and vineyard. But the key relationship is between Sobran and Xas, man and angel. The relationship is sexual for a time but not just that – there is a well-drawn intimacy and tenderness, a sense of equals learning from each other (something the film also seems to lose). It becomes, we understand, the great relationship of Sobran’s life.
The story is told in short chapters, one per year from 1808 to Sobran’s death in 1863, with an epilogue set in 1997. Some of these chapters are less than a page; the longest seem to be around the years 1833, 1834 and 1835, when a series of important things happen: Aurora has a breast removed when she develops cancer; Xas and Sobran have sex; and Xas is wounded in the side by an archangel and must have his wings removed. It is Lucifer who does this emergency surgery and this is one of the vivid scenes that many readers talk about first. This whole section – Xas bleeding but not dying, as the plants, insects and animals around him expire instead (“He isn’t dead, he’s deadly,” Aurora points out), Lucifer methodically slicing off the angel’s wings with the skill and speed of a butcher – should have made a very strong sequence in Caro’s film. Of course we get none of that.
And that’s only one of many omissions. Caro has cut back the angel’s role so much that he no longer seems to be part of the same story (indeed, he even goes unnamed). She focuses instead on the love triangle between Sobran, Celeste and Aurora and on Sobran’s ambitions as a wine-maker. Gaylene Preston's defence of Caro has been to suggest that the bad reviews point to a local impatience with magical realism or the supernatural, as though New Zealanders are still hung up on their traditions of local realism. Whether or not that's true in general, it doesn’t apply in this case -- not least because the most disappointed critics (Larsen especially) seem very keen on the supernatural dimension.
In fact, Caro has opted for heavily localised realism herself and made a story so deliberately earth-bound – pagan in spirit more than Christian and certainly not post-Christian – that the angel can’t find any space in it. And when the angel has his wings removed in Caro’s version – which he asks Sobran to do, not Lucifer (who neither appears nor is referred to) – we have had none of the backstory about Xas’ transgression of heaven’s code that led to his injury and so we take it as a version of the angel’s wish to be mortal or human, familiar from stories like Wings of Desire. In other words, The Vintner’s Luck is a film by a writer/director with no obvious interest in the book’s theological dimension. You really have to wonder why she wanted to make it.

3. Bugs, buds, wine bores

Before we get to that, some more on the film. Caro is famous as a director of actors – she got good work out of the previously unknown Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider and a strong performance from Charlize Theron in North Country – and there are two fine performances in her Vintner’s Luck: Jeremie Renier (familiar to us from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s The Child) as Sobran and American actress Vera Farmiga as Aurora. This partly platonic relationship between the ambitious young man and the wealthy, proto-feminist woman is clearly the only one of the book’s many relationships that Caro responded to -- I sensed it had some similarities with the relationship between Theron’s Josey Aimes and Woody Harrelson’s Bill White in North Country. Also, if you were scanning this French-set and largely French-crewed film for traces of that mysterious quality called New Zealandness, it might be this: an endorsement of Sobran’s ambition, that urge to remake himself and break out of the class he was born into. With the angel sidelined, that is what passes for a narrative arc.
But that grounded dullness is the opposite of Knox’s achievement in The Vintner’s Luck. In her essay “Antipodean Theologies: Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck”, Jane Stafford talks about Knox’s “unexpected leap of imagination and literary nerve”. It wasn’t just a leap for Knox’s own writing but for New Zealand fiction in general and it’s telling that Knox often seems to talk about the book as something that happened to her, that came into her life from out of the blue and changed it dramatically. It really did seem to be an event. It also became a key text in an argument that a new kind of writing was developing in New Zealand -- especially in Wellington, among writers connected to Victoria University -- one free of old constraints around subject matter, location and approach. Stafford’s essay appears in a recent book called Floating Worlds, which celebrates thistendency – its other famous exponent might be Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, also an antipodean re-imagining of old-world culture, but in a more straight-forward way.
Much has been made – and little of it positive – of the film’s shooting style, which favours hand-held cameras and abrupt edits as though the makers of The Bourne Ultimatum had somehow got their hands on this footage. If you were generous, you might take it as reflecting a 21st century sensibility, comparable to Knox's post-Christianity. Well, perhaps. But it’s an aesthetic choice that fails the material, although the close-ups of bugs and leaves and buds – very sub-Malick circa The Thin Red Line – gives a sense of the teeming natural world as I think Knox has described it.
Caro’s visual approach affects the pace of the film in a negative way, especially its sense of time. That Malick style gives you a kind of timelessness, which connects to Malick's ideas about “paradise” and the pre-modern world in both The Thin Red Line and The New World, but he also knows how to incorporate a narrative that moves forward. The only sense that time is passing in The Vintner’s Luck is the sporadically convincing age make-up on Renier’s Sobran. Oddly, Castle-Hughes doesn’t get to age, meaning Celeste looks younger than her adult daughter by the end of the film. As an immortal being, Xas doesn’t age either – but I don’t think Caro is implying that Xas and Celeste are somehow interchangeable on a symbolic level.
Anyway, Castle-Hughes as Celeste is an incredibly poor choice. You can only assume that Caro cast her out of a sense of loyalty. She is expressionless throughout and her mad scene – playing with dolls on her dead child’s grave – is just laughable. Which only alerts you to the fact that another big plot point -- the death of Sobran and Celeste’s daughter Nicolette – is hopelessly fumbled. The murders disappear too along with the character of Leon, Sobran’s brother. We also lose the geographic scope that the angel brings to the story – in the book he is forever coming back from a world over that horizon. Not just heaven and hell, but Damascus, Palestine, South America, China, Australia and other places. It’s as though a new global sensibility is starting to break through into the world of a peasant who might once have never gone further than his valley – the rebel-angel as modernity (I've wondered why Knox has a quote from Lautreamont as the epigraph). But the most crucial and, for me, most disappointing change from book to film is the sense that this is no longer the angel’s story. Now he is just a winged being who – perplexingly – pops in for a chat about wine once a year. So there are endless straight-faced wine-bore lines about how this vintage tastes of sweat, cinnamon and cherries or charcoal, raspberry and desperation or chalk, gunpowder and anxiety. I made those examples up but the lines in the film are nearly as stupid.

4. Thomas Martin in the fields

A quick word on historical context. The 19th century background is the tension between superstition and secularism, apocalyptic irrationality against scientific rationalism:
Most textbooks agree that the 19th century was a heyday of secularism: science, technology, reform and education banished, or at least marginalised, superstition. But secularisation had its limits. What one calls superstition, another calls belief, and the marvels of modernity often served to spread and publicise marvels familiar from pre-modern days ... Like the Florentine revolution of the 15th century, the French Revolution of the 18th century had been an apocalyptic event. And Napoleon, an Antichrist to some, was a messiah figures for others. In this perspective, Waterloo looks like a hiccup in an ocean of expectations, some religious, some adapting the idiom of religion to more secular millenarianisms. Politics and faith interlaced, as the claims to the French throne of spurious but persistent claimants were asserted by a variety of prophets. In 1816, at Gallardon not far from Chartres, a peasant called Thomas Martin was visited in his field by a gentleman who turned out to be the archangel Raphael. Martin was to tell first Louis XVIII, then Charles X, that their brother's son still lived and, under the name of Naundorff, was the legitimate King of France. In the fraught early 1830s, when cholera and rebellion vied for the attention of troubled Frenchmen, Martin's obscure but apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected or invented to predict more plagues and calamities: "the time draws near ... gloom, evils ... day of execution ... scourges about to strike, the massacre will be general throughout France." -- Eugen Weber, from Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages, Pimlico, 1999.
5. Excuses
"Elizabeth gets away with so much that I can’t get away with because she’s a genius writer … Film-making is a more populist medium and I wanted to make the film a little more accessible. For me, it takes the strongest part of Elizabeth’s book, which was those characters, and it puts them in an environment that is easier for a film audience to enjoy …
I mean, I’m not a gay man so it wouldn’t be easy for me to direct the film in purely a homoerotic way, or appropriate … As far as the God thing goes, I can only direct films from what I know and I don’t subscribe to orthodox religion. So it was about [Sobran’s] spirit and his humanness. That’s expressed through his winemaking." – Niki Caro, interviewed in the Listener, September 19, 2009.
The hardest thing for fans of the book to understand about this film is the apparent cowardice of Niki Caro. Another part of the legend is that Caro loved the book so much she turned up on Knox’s doorstep with flowers and told her: I have to make this film. A touching scene, but what book did she love? Not The Vintner’s Luck everyone else read. It makes no sense that someone uninterested in “orthodox religion” and unable to direct films in “a homoerotic way” can have wanted to adapt a book in which both things are important?
As it become clear that bad reviews and word of mouth were going to sink the film, Knox did something unusual: she broke with the convention that says writers don’t criticise adaptations and told a newspaper reporter that she cried for three days after she saw The Vintner’s Luck. Everyone seemed to understand. She elaborated on radio, saying she was still puzzled and still waiting for an explanation from Caro. Why did the book she write change so significantly? Why was the key relationship missing?
It’s easy to develop a conspiracy theory. A film with gay themes is seen as not “accessible” (Caro’s word) to audiences, never mind Brokeback Mountain’s big success. Is it comparable to the way New Line watered down the more theologically abrasive parts of Philip Pullman’s Paradise Lost-inspired Golden Compass/Northern Lights? Is there a fear that gay angels won’t play in Peoria? Was there a funding body or producer urging Caro to drop some of this stuff? In the radio interview, Knox said she remembers seeing an earlier shooting script with more Xas in it. And what is the role of Joan Scheckel, an American script doctor who gets her first co-writing credit with The Vintner’s Luck?
Caro is not “a gay man” and can’t direct such scenes? Well, Knox is not a gay man either and she wrote them. Caro’s first two features were adaptations of stories by gay men: Peter Wells’ Of Memory and Desire and Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider. Neither were gay-themed stories as such but both films spoke of Caro’s ability and willingness to step into another’s perspective: a Japanese widow in New Zealand and a Maori girl on the East Coast. When Whale Rider was released, Caro spoke about being granted permission to tell a story that was not hers, which makes it tough to buy the "I can only direct films from what I know" argument. Prior to those films, Caro displayed an obvious sensitivity towards marginalised figures in TV dramas and short films like The Summer the Queen Came, Plain Tastes and Sure to Rise, which is where many of us first encountered her. Her "gay man" lines must be an excuse to mask a more callous decision -- either a new-found cynicism about audiences and the industry or pressure from the people who write the cheques.
Update: A reader has alerted me to a RNZ item on The Vintner's Luck which ran on Arts on Sunday. Simon Morris' interview with Caro was recorded before Elizabeth Knox broke her silence; of relevance to the above is Caro's reiteration of "working within the Maori world" when she made Whale Rider. Of greater interest is an interview with Joan Scheckel recorded more recently. Questioned about the downplaying of the gay element, Scheckel says: "There are other sides that are attacking it for being gay porn" (if anyone sees reviews of that kind, let me know -- but I'd be surprised). Asked about whether there are limits to the changes a screenplay writer can or should make, she says: "I don't think anything is too much. I don't think we should put limits on ourselves when it comes to thought and creativity." But the real questions are whether the original material is well-served, in a thematic sense, by the film-maker's interpretations and whether the new story is at least as interesting as the old one. Whale Rider passed the test. Cronenberg's radical rewrites of Naked Lunch and Crash, ditto. But The Vintner's Luck fails on both counts. However, I still don't believe -- as Simon Morris implies -- that the book was unfilmable.
The RNZ feature should be
online for ten weeks from the original broadcast date, which was November 22.