Although it’s set in modern-day France, the plot of the engrossing drama “You Will Be My Son” feels vaguely like it was ripped from the stone tablet headlines of ancient Rome. Like an emperor dismayed over his unremarkable offspring, aging vintner Paul de Marseul (Niels Arestrup) sets out to replace his heir apparent.
Paul is a repugnant character. He’s a bully to his son, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), and says creepy things to his daughter-in-law, Alice (Anne Marivin). He’s also one of those insipid people who can report on each scintilla of flavor in a glass of wine, while belittling those who don’t have his super-sensory skills for detecting notes of peony.
After studying viticulture, Martin has returned with Alice to his father’s estate and vineyard, hoping to pick up the skills he hasn’t learned in the classroom. Since Paul is a widower and Martin is his only son, it seems as if the offspring is destined to eventually run the storied vineyard, which has been in the Marseul family for generations.
There’s only one problem: Paul detests every aspect of Martin, including his bitten fingernails, his habit of jogging, his stutter and his inefficiency at fathering a son of his own. When Paul’s friend and the skilled head harvester of his vineyard, François (Patrick Chesnais), is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Martin is determined to take over and prove himself. His attempts, predictably, turn out below par. And right on cue, François’s son, Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), shows up. He happens to be the head winemaker for the Coppola Winery in California.
Where Martin is milquetoast and seemingly on the verge of tears at all times, Philippe is dashing and assured. More importantly, where Martin couldn’t detect a floral finish if his head was in a rosebush, Philippe can wax poetic about how licorice and hints of strawberry commingle. Paul immediately makes known his preference for the newcomer, to the chagrin of both Martin and the dying François.
It would be easy to make a movie pitting Paul, the deadbeat dad, against Martin, the long-suffering descendant who deserves his multimillion-dollar inheritance. But director Gilles Legrand, who co-wrote the script, opts for a more difficult and satisfying approach. Paul is unabashedly cruel, but Martin acts insufferably childish. Worse, anyone with an ounce of self-respect probably would have deserted Paul long ago, but Martin sticks around even though soul-crushing abuse is all but guaranteed.
That being said, “You Will Be My Son” is not a subtle movie. Some of the characterizations and music feel heavy-handed, and one major plot point late in the film feels inauthentic. The justice might taste sweet, but it doesn’t have the exquisite complexity of a nice glass of red.
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains a sexual situation and language. In French with English subtitles. 102 minutes.