Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What makes for a good life: Scott’s ‘A Good Year’

On the way to and back from Tokyo, I treated myself on two viewings (after seeing it once, I could not resist watching it again) of Ridley Scott’s uplifting film, ‘A Good Year’ (20th Century Fox, 2006), and was impressed, once again, by the director’s ability to work convincingly in different genres. After all, judging by his rendition of Alien, who could have guessed he would be as good in Thelma and Louise (an inexorably feminist film, by a man), in Gladiator and many others, including Prometheus, which has been described as ‘space opera’? In A Good Year Scott again turns to the actor who played Maximus in Gladiator, namely Russell Crowe, and again the Australian actor delivers the goods with aplomb.

Very loosely-based on the novel by Peter Mayle, the film is a delight, despite tackling the serious question, ‘what makes life worth living’ – a question that many philosophers and novelists have answered in their own unique manner. What makes the film (and the novel, although I prefer the way that screenwriter Marc Klein has changed the plot for the film) so engaging, is that it confronts the claims by (some, if not all) capitalists, that making as much money as possible is the raison d’etre of human existence today, and in the process uncovers its vacuity. (In passing I should note that the narrative is infused with the real-life experiences of Peter Mayle and his wife, who took the drastic step of relocating to Provence in France in a manner similar to events in the novel and film.)

The narrative traces events in the life of Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), investment trader extraordinaire in London’s financial district, who frequently ruffles the feathers of his high finance competitors through morally dubious, but finance-psychology savvy successes scored on the stock market. We already know from the prologue of the film that as a youngster, Max spent his summer holidays on his uncle Henry’s vineyard estate In France’s Provence, and that the latter educated him the art of good living, from wine-tasting to tennis.

When Uncle Henry dies, he leaves the wine estate to Max, who, by this time, is making so much money on the stock exchange that he’s not interested, and travels to France to arrange for a quick sale of the estate. Once there, however, he learns that sometimes, life just happens to one, willy-nilly. Fumbling with his cell phone while driving, Max unwittingly forces a young local restaurant-owner, Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard) off the road where she suffers an unpleasant fall from her bicycle. Fanny gets her chance at revenge when she recognises Max’s rented car at the estate, and finds him in the empty swimming pool, unable to get out after accidentally falling in while taking photos of the property. Instead of helping him get out, she turns on the water to the pool, and the time it takes for the water to rise sufficiently for Max to get out makes him miss his flight – a blow for Max, because his company CEO had summoned him back to London post haste to make amends for the negative impact on the investment world of his recent trading exploits.

As a result of his no-show in London, he is penalised with a week-long suspension from work, and Max has no alternative but to make the most of his week in Provence. Driving through the nearby town, Max notices Fanny at her restaurant, and is impressed by her beauty. On another occasion he relieves pressure on her by doing an impromptu waiter stint when her café is overrun by clients. Despite her misgivings about men in general and him in particular, he manages to persuade her to have dinner with him the following night, and they end up in bed together, after which Fanny leaves, believing that Max will return to his successful trader’s life.

To cut a long story short, Max does eventually return to London to face the music, and is offered the choice between a lucrative dismissal-settlement and a lifelong partnership by the CEO. Interestingly, what makes up his mind is the fact that the CEO tells him that the Van Gogh hanging in the boardroom is a copy, because the original, too valuable to expose to public viewing, is safely in a vault; something that drives the point home to Max that valorising monetary value exclusively devalues life – instead of enjoying the ‘real thing’, it is sequestered, out of sight, while a copy, a ‘fake’, is offered instead.

It is not difficult to guess what decision follows his insight into the alienating effect that an obsession with money has on life. At the risk of spoiling the movie for those who have not had the pleasure, Max returns to France, and in a delightful scene-sequence at Fanny’s restaurant, he surprises her by intimating that, in lieu of the sold-out items on the menu, he’d rather spend the rest of his life with her. The film ends with the two of them having lunch and kissing in the sun-dappled shade under the trees on his estate – the sale of which Max prevented in the end – while Madame Duflot, the housekeeper, looks on with satisfaction, and her husband, the vintner, argues good-naturedly with Max’s cousin, Christie (his uncle’s recently surfaced love-child, whom Max has given the opportunity to pursue her love of wine-making on the estate).

On the surface this might seem like just another charming romantic comedy (and when it appeared most critics rated it negatively as soppy and unimaginative), but I submit that it is much more than this, given its persuasive staging of a conflict between two sets of divergent values – those uncompromising profit-oriented values (no matter what the personal cost) of finance capital, and the countervailing values of savouring life in all its sun-drenched diversity. Not the kind of sun-drenching that occurs when the monied elites of the world escape for a weekend to the beaches of Rio’s Copacabana or a private island somewhere, but the kind that involves your sweat, working in the vineyards, together with the sun-matured taste of the grapes on the vine.

Scott stages this confrontation between divergent outlooks on life with subtlety, using many flashbacks, skilfully suggesting the inner struggle on Max’s part when he is confronted by experiences reminding him of his youthful initiation into appreciating the finer things in life under his uncle Henry’s tutelage – experiences that tug at his chartered soul, for example when his friend Charlie tells him that he was made to make money, which he does exceedingly well.

Clearly, the decision Max eventually comes to is not an easy one to make, and the critical point where it occurs is tellingly framed by the question concerning a valuable painting by the great (post-) impressionist master, Vincent Van Gogh, titled ‘Road with Cypress and Star’. Significantly, Van Gogh himself lived impecuniously, although his paintings today fetch millions of dollars. Van Gogh’s paintings, suffused in vibrant colours in a Victorian era where people seemed to have eyes only for sombre blacks, browns and greys, embody the colours of life, which makes the CEO’s decision, to isolate the original in a secluded vault, leaving a copy in its stead in the company boardroom, symbolic of a denial of life for the sake of safeguarding financial investment.

The further significance of the copy of Van Gogh’s painting in the boardroom is that it reminds Max powerfully of Fanny, who has a copy of the same painting hanging in her café, albeit with different implications – while the company CEO has the choice between hanging the copy or the original, which he owns, Fanny has no such choice. For her, the (copy of the) painting simply serves to introduce beautiful colours into the restaurant interior; there is no original that subverts the value of the copy’s presence.

But for Max the CEO’s choice, not to display the original when he has every opportunity to do so, speaks volumes in favour of choosing a way of living which prioritises life, the ‘real thing’, over a finance-compromised pseudo-life, forever beholden to the vagaries of the stock-exchange. Instead of ‘A Good Year’, the film could just as easily have been titled ‘A Good Life’.

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