Red Obsession & Frances Ha

August 17, 2013
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“When the dragon awakes, she will shake the world,” said Napoleon Bonaparte, with uncanny anticipation of China’s twenty-first century mania for high-end red wine.

For wine buffs, Napoleon will be the least significant figure quoted in a film that explores a booming market for Bordeaux that saw prices rise by more than 1000% in less than a decade. The roll-call of talent features wine gurus such as Janice Robinson and Oz Clarke, and a host of famous vignerons, including Christian Moueix, who admits he is more of a drinker than a taster. There’s even room for celebrity tipplers, from Francis Ford Coppola to Michael Parkinson.

Australian film-makers, Warwick Ross and David Roach have produced a rich, smooth, slightly fruity documentary that takes us from the historic vineyards of Bordeaux to the facsimile chateaux of a new generation of Chinese wine producers. On the way we sample the full romance of the wine industry and meet the Asian enthusiasts who have revolutionised the business. The narrator is Russell Crowe, whose gruff tones bring an earthiness to this rarefied subject. Although wine may owe everything to the terroir, once it enters a bottle it becomes the stuff of dreams.

Red Obsession manages to analyse the evolution and structure of a global market while never deigning to treat wine as a mere commodity. It is possible, as this film suggests, to view the finest vintages as works of art. It requires tremendous care and skill to create these wines, which are judged by exacting connoisseurs. Yet the moment of actual pleasure is brief. The cork is removed, a few glasses quaffed, and a bottle worth tens of thousands of dollars disppears just as easily as a bargain bin special.

The story changes when people begin to collect wine as a fetish object or as an investment. In this film the best example of the collector mentality is the wealthy Chinese woman who says that when she buys an expensive wine at auction it’s not necessarily to drink – she just has to have it. Then there is Peter Tseng, who made his millions through manufacturing and selling sex toys. His wine cellar is worth US$65 million. When Tseng goes to an auction he simply raises his arm and keeps it raised until he secures the desired bottle.

With such collectors bidding against each other prices soar and records are set. It’s no surprise that one finance expert, Joe Marchant, has been able to set up a successful company called the Bordeaux Index, which trades vintages in the same manner as a stock-broking firm. The top-end wines now accumulate value faster than shares or property. Unless you want to make a grandiose display of your wealth and generosity, in the Chinese manner, many of these bottles are simply too valuable to open.

In the course of this documentary we learn a great deal about French wine-making traditions, and a global wine industry in which benchmark prices are no longer set by American money. With the United States on the economic downcurve and China on the rise, the business has swiftly learned to adapt. This has meant catering to Chinese customs and superstitions which saw a scramble for the 2008 Chateau Lafite because ‘8’ is a lucky number in traditional numerology. Lafite soon added the Chinese character for ‘8’ to their labels – a gesture interpreted by some as a cynical marketing ploy, albeit a successful one.

The new China is a show-off culture populated with self-made millionaires who survived the dire years of the Cultural Revolution, and made their fortunes in the era of reforms. What has been rapidly acquired is easily spent, by figures who believe life is to be enjoyed while good fortune reigns. To these newly rich, wine is the ultimate object of conspicuous consumption. A famous vintage confers prestige on the owner and bespeaks one’s carefree attitude towards money. One Chinese businessman says that Lafite is the only wine some of his friends have ever touched.

Red Obsession has as many insights into China and the Chinese character as any political documentary. The traits that define the Chinese wine collectors are reflected in the ambition and boundess energy of developers who can erect a skyscraper in 15 days. But for every economic miracle there is also a scam – in this case, a thriving market in phoney Lafite, sometimes packaged in recycled bottles. The assumption is that many wealthy buyers simply would not know the difference between true and false, being content to pay for the fancy label.

The final stage of China’s rapid evolution as a wine-drinking nation reflects the nation’s unshakable confidence in its own capacities. Within a couple of decades the local Chinese wine industry has progressed from humble beginnings to the point where bottles are winning gold medals at international fairs. The Chinese wine-makers have purchased the oak barrels, the technology and the expertise from Europe. They may house their acquisitions in ersatz copies of the Bordeaux estates, but the Disneyfied trappings do not detract from a billion dollar potential. Although the history and traditions of the industry will always reside with the great wine-makers of France, it seems that the future lies in the east.

When a film is described as “charming” this often means it is unwatchably cute and sentimental. Frances Ha, however, is charming in the best sense. The story is so slight it is hardly more than a character sketch. That character – a goofy, spoiled, good-natured girl named Frances, is not one of the immortal personalities of the cinema. And yet it works.

We fall for Frances because her faults are so closely allied to her good points. She is 27, but feels she “looks older”. She says she wants to move in with a boyfriend when she wants nothing of the sort, but she doesn’t like to disappoint. There are times when Frances’s friends act as if she were mentally retarded, but then she comes out with some surprising statement that reveals acute sensitivity. She does a pretty good impersonation of New York self-obsession, but has too much empathy to keep pushing herself ahead of the pack. She is a dancer by profession, but remarkably clumsy.

Part of the movie’s charm is that it is shot in black-and-white. Woody Allen alerted us to the romance of New York in Manhattan (1979), his black-and-white love letter to the city, and the lesson holds true today. Removing the colour also removes many distractions, allowing us to concentrate on the story and the characters.

Director, Noah Baumbach, who came to prominence with his 2005 feature, The Squid and the Whale, is making the kind of films that Woody Allen used to make before lapsing into relentless self-parody. Baumbach’s low-key characters and their dilemmas are instantly recognisable to us. There’s a little bit of Frances in everyone.

The film owes everything to Greta Gerwig in the title role, who is emerging as one of Hollywood’s most promising talents. Baumbach is Gerwig’s real-life boyfriend, and they have co-authored the script. Like Frances, Gerwig originally comes from Sacramento, and her actual parents play the roles of Frances’s parents. One begins to wonder about the differences between the actress and her alter-ego.

A consistent theme of this movie is the strong relationship that exists between Frances and her friend, Sophie – played by Sting’s daughter, Mickey Sumner. “We’re the same person,” says Frances, “with different hair.” The two girls share an apartment and sleep together, although they are both heterosexual. Part of the conversation consists of swapping unusually frank details of their sex lives.

When Sophie decides to get a new apartment, and then shack up with a boyfriend, Frances’s life loses its centre of gravity. She struggles to get work with the dance company, in which she performs as an apprentice. She moves in wth two well-off boys who consider themselves artists, but finds it hard to pay the rent. Sophie warns her: “The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.”

A trip back to California provides momentary sustenance, but poverty still impinges. Perversely she decides to send a weekend in Paris – a impulsive, financially disastrous idea that will touch anyone who has ever done something spontaneously in defiance of common sense. The journey is a repudiation of her “undateable” loneliness, her penniless condition, and her sense of being dumped by her soul mate. The soundtrack to this episode is Hot Chocolate’s Everyone’s a Winner, which is bleakly ironic but also defiant.

Baumbach is skilled at adding by details that help construct a portrait of the heroine. When she finds a student crying in a college corridor and sits down with her, this says more about Frances than any amount of dialogue.

The script in this move is consistently amusing without ever reaching any great heights. The gags are understated and largely a function of Frances’s eccentricities – as when she falls flat on her face, racing back from a midnight search for an ATM. As a would-be dancer Frances comes across as a parody of those rags-to-riches heroines of showbiz films such as Flashdance.  Although she is said to be talented she has barely any luck getting roles, and saves her dancing for the streets. Watching Frances pirouette through Manhattan to the sounds of David Bowie’s Modern Love, we realise her talent is not for the stage, but for life.

 

Red Obsession, Australia/China/France/UK/Hong Kong, rated PG, 96 mins

 

Frances Ha, USA, rated MA 15+, 86 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 17, 2013

 

 

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