The most quietly terrifying presence in film today belongs to a gray-haired, 64-year-old French actor with a Danish name. If you are familiar with Niels Arestrup's work, you don't need any convincing. If you're not, "You Will Be My Son" is all the persuading you'll need.
Best known for his two films with Jacques Audiard, "A Prophet" and "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" — both of which won him Cesars for supporting actor — Arestrup has also appeared in Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" and, more recently, Belgian director Joachim Lafosse's grueling "Our Children."
"You Will Be My Son" was directed, co-written and co-produced by Gilles Legrand and is squarely in the classic French film tradition. A strongly acted, character-driven melodrama, concerned with the dynamics of family in general and father-son issues in particular, it presents situations so emotionally supercharged that the whole story could have come straight out of Balzac.
Perfectionist Paul de Marseul, the kind of guy who puts a final polish on his shoes with Hennessy cognac, is at the center of things. He runs a prestigious Bordeaux vineyard (the film was shot at Chateau Clos Fourtet in Saint-Emilion) that has been in his family for 11 generations. As played by Arestrup, an actor of implacable force and commanding presence, he is someone not to be trifled with.
Filmmaker Legrand has shrewdly chosen to introduce Paul at his most charming, as he's flirting with a female journalist in order to get good press for his wines. (So that's how it works.) Even when he smiles and fascinates, however, an air of palpable danger and menace surrounds him.
This dark side comes out fully when Paul deals with his adult son Martin (Lorant Deutsch), who works with him in the winery in an administrative and sales capacity. A domestic tyrant who has nothing but biting contempt for his heir, Paul never misses a chance to mock and belittle his son and his university education.
"You don't learn to make wine in college," he insists, and when Martin negotiates a fine deal with an exporter, his father accuses him of trying to shirk his responsibilities. What Paul stands for, he says, is "perfection not approximation," and his bottom line is that "this is a vineyard, not a charity."
Not surprisingly, a lifetime of being treated like a servant has made the clearly competent Martin into a nervous, uncertain adult. He may be married with an attractive wife (Anne Marivin), but being dismissed as an inept child is his daily lot.
A pair of interlocking complications soon arise to bring this heady mixture to a rolling boil. First is the illness of Francois Amelot (the veteran Patrick Chesnais), Paul's longtime estate manager and one of the few people he trusts absolutely.
With Francois diagnosed with cancer and too weak to work, Paul has no one to oversee the upcoming harvest. Martin begs for the chance but then, out of nowhere, a further complication emerges.
That would be the return home of Francois' son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), an accomplished winemaker in his own right and, so we are told, the top man at Francis Ford Coppola's Napa Valley establishment. Handsome, charismatic, with a gift for wine, Philippe is the kind of son Paul always wishes he had, down to a shared weakness for expensive shoes. His presence on the estate complicates things for everyone in ways both foreseen and unexpected.
Though Arestrup dominates the film with his authoritative acting in the same way his character dominates those around him, the film's melodramatic plotting demands realistic performances all around in order to be convincing, and that's exactly what it gets.
It's a measure of the belief writer-director Legrand has in his material that he not only reveals some of his plot in his title, he does the same with his opening scene. It's an assurance that the film more than delivers on.
'You Will Be My Son'
MPAA rating: R, for brief sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: At Landmark, West Los AngelesCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun