Red Obsession Dir. David Roach, Warwick Ross

[FilmBuff; 2013]

Styles: documentary, travel, wine appreciation
Others: Somm, Manufactured Landscapes, Up the Yangtze

The skyrocketing prices of Bordeaux wines are an emblematic consequence of the curdling distribution of wealth worldwide: the product of a centuries-old tradition with a lovingly human dimension has been warped into a grotesque status signifier for capitalists to collect and hoard. David Roach and Warwick Ross’s documentary Red Obsession comes across as a bit of a luxury item itself: lavishly produced, with a profusion of helicopter shots, much globetrotting, and the booming star power of Russell Crowe as the film’s narrator, it doesn’t get its hands dirty with too much investigative reporting.

The film gets inside the Château gates and effectively captures the smooth surfaces of wine industry culture, getting interviews with big players and visiting En Primeur, the industry’s equivalent of fashion week. The price of this access, however, is having to take it all at face value. Frédéric Engerer, CEO of Château Latour, conveys a genuine enchantment with the land and the process that produces his wine, but Corinne Mentzelopoulos, the owner of Château Margaux, gives off a real estate agent vibe with her hyperbole. Paul Pontallier, Château Margot’s Technical Director, puts on an impressive display of restrained, high-level salesmanship in describing the 2010 vintage. Far from being any kind of exposé, the film starts to feel like a marketing tool for the industry it’s ostensibly investigating.

The salesmanship is taken to yet another level with the introduction of wine critics. Frenchman Michel Bettane lays it on thick, drawing brain-level connections between taste and sound to fold Steinways and Stradivariuses into his discourse on fine wine appreciation. British critic Jancis Robinson is a veritable minx with her choice of words: “A great wine just drrrrrills down into your psyche and your perceptions, and strikes a chord and, you know, it’s like some brass instrument that goes ding ding ding ding ding and then bingo, it’s great, and you respond in a very sensual way.” She expresses the second “s” in “sensual” as a voiceless alveolar sibilant, which seems to carry an implied invitation to the exquisitely dark and decadent pleasures of the leisure class. Timed to her “ding ding ding ding” is a series of barely perceptible post-production chimes — possibly made by fine crystal.

The film then shifts to its main area of interest and briefly shows some ambition to get the story. Russell Crowe’s sumptuous growl informs us that in the past ten years the prices of the top Bordeaux wines have risen tenfold. “The inevitable has happened: they’ve become too valuable to drink.” The market has been gobbled up by investors. Jancis Robinson returns, and sums up her function quite viscerally: “We are all pawns; we are all part of helping the Bordeaux chateau owners get as much money as possible.” The film pauses for a hugely portentous reveal — in front of Shanghai’s skyline a crowd practices Tai Chi, backlit by morning sunlight; this segues into a visitors bureau-esque montage of bustling China today: the hot new market for Bordeaux is China. The dramatic tone of the transition is a strange filmmaking choice considering that most viewers will already know that China’s thirst for Bordeaux is the topic of the film.

From here Roach and Ross delve into, or rather skim the surface of, Chinese culture and the craze for Bordeaux wines. There are sweeping statements like, “The Chinese have no fear.” An unlikely connection is made between entrepreneurship and the Cultural Revolution. The role of the windbaggy pundit is grasped with relish by wine consultant Fongyee Walker, who opines that “normally in the West we view exoticism as coming from the East, ‘orientalism’ as it were. But here there is a type of exoticism coming from the West!”

There’s a juicy bit with a dildo impresario who happens to own one of China’s most extensive wine collections. The film travels to his factory and gets footage of otherwise typical assembly line workers impassively handling sex toys. But in general Red Obsession, however elegantly bottled and labeled, lacks nose. Roach and Ross attempt to wrest drama from the concept that by relying on Chinese markets the Bordeaux wineries risk losing their longstanding relationships elsewhere, but frankly who cares? Machinations and dirty laundry within the industry are left safely in their temperature-controlled cellars. Surely there must be a human dimension to this story. Something equivalent, with due proportion, to the fishermen of Lake Victoria in Darwin’s Nightmare who can’t afford to eat the fish they catch.

Should we be concerned that the Bordeaux wineries might make less Yuan when the bubble bursts? Fongyee Walker weighs in again toward the end with further esoteric knowledge. “My advice to Western companies is don’t forget it’s China, and things work differently here,” she says, with a knowing smile.

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