The last time Haley Bennett starred in a gloriously romantic period piece, it was Joe Wright’s daring musical re-imagining of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” 2021’s “Cyrano.” She’s back in lavish gowns and rapturously beautiful settings in “Widow Clicquot,” Thomas Napper’s ode to (in no particular order) champagne, doomed romance and girl power. If it’s neither as bold nor as swooning as “Cyrano,” it does provide additional evidence that Bennett slips easily into the 19th century as both an object of beauty and a force of nature.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it is one of a number of wildly varied films in which women claim power that had been denied to them in patriarchal societies. (Others include “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” “Fair Play,” “Lee,” “The Promised Land,” “Woman of the Year,” “Wicked Little Letters” and more.) But the gender-driven power struggles in “Widow Clicquot” are in some ways the most conventional part of the film, which can soar in one moment and feel routine in the next.
Bennett stars as the real-life Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, a.k.a. “the grand dame of champagne,” who had an arranged but passionate marriage to winemaking heir François Clicquot when she was 19. She became a widow six years later. (The official accounts of the day say he died of typhoid; the movie says it was suicide brought on by mental illness.) The film begins in the aftermath of his death, with François lying dead on a table and his wife looking at the vineyards and bemoaning in voiceover, “It seems impossible that anything will ever grow here again.”
But to say the movie “begins” with a specific event is perhaps misleading, because “Widow Clicquot” swoops and turns with the flamboyant emotions of its characters. One moment we’re in what passes for the present, in a gloomy, darkened room with Madame Clicquot reacting angrily when her father-in-law reveals his plan to sell the vineyard to their neighbor, Jean-Remy Moët; the next we’re with the couple at the height of their passion, light streaming through the windows as they make love.
The film moves in an ecstatic fantasia, slipping from joy (Barbe-Nicole in white and in love) to despair (in black and in pain). The relationship is what transports you, with Bennett and Tom Sturridge throwing themselves into a passion too extreme to last.
There’s something out of time about Bennett, a lovely fit for period roles, even if she hangs onto a grit that doesn’t yield to the restrictions of the time. Sturridge is effective in a shorter and flashier role as a grand romantic who has innovative ideas about winemaking (sing to the vines!) but is far too besotted with Voltaire, tragedy and the opiates of the era.
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier has both the right name and the right touch for the beauty and drama of the story, while composer Bryce Dessner — who also scored and wrote songs for “Cyrano” — moves from stately to insistent to rhapsodic along with the film’s own shifts.
But while the nonlinear storytelling gives “Widow Clicquot” an appropriate air of reverie, it doesn’t help with the story that serves as the movie’s backbone. Mme. Clicquot is put in charge of the vineyard because that’s what her husband wanted, but she has to fight to preserve his way of doing things. She also battles the Napoleonic Codes, which specifically forbade women from running companies. She does so with the help of Louis Bohne (Sam Riley), a wine salesman with a requisite rakish charm and a few tricks to get around the codes and embargoes.
“Men are so certain,” she says after being called in front of a hearing engineered to take away her company. “But do they know the truth, or are they only certain of themselves?”
There’s no real mystery here – we know she’ll suffer big setbacks and things will look dire, but we also know that Veuve Clicquot is still a brand of champagne, so it seems unlikely that she’ll go down in history as a failure. (Besides, Veuve Clicquot translates as Widow Clicquot.) This is a female-empowerment story that has the right actress at its center, but is only fully satisfying when it breaks free of the plot to find those moments of rapture.
“Widow Clicquot” is a sales title at TIFF.
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