I have a stash of films I go to when I’m simply in a good mood and want to know what I’m getting into; well, we probably all do. One of these, watched I dont know how many times, is A Good Year, directed by Ridley Scott staring Russel Crowe. For a long time, I didn’t really know what this film has that makes me keep wanting to “go there” but if you could bottle it, I would probably have taken a sip every day. Good analogy, as it turns out, as its set in a vineyard located just outside Bonnieux, a location we were fortunate enough to drive past (we didn’t quite have the courage to knock on the door for an impromptu viewing as many people do; we’re British don’t you know…) and in the town of Gordes which we stopped in, last time we were in Provence.
I love its quirk, its humour, its irreverance, its soundtrack. I also know that a fairly obvious draw is its lighting, its scenery and its flashes of a honey-lit Provence garden filmed so close-up and sensorarily that you could be there amidst the buzz of insects and the brush of leaves against the face as sun beams bounce off water. The way the camera pans to capitalise on light effect is exactly the way I work with gardens as a photographer; looking into the sun and the most boundary-stretching edges of where form dissolves back into fuzzy molecules so these scenes are pure poetry in motion for me.
So, I watched it again last night, being in that kind of mood, and it didn’t disappoint, feeding my dreams with golden vistas. It was only today…perhaps because I have known this film for such a long time that it predates any knowledge I had of Welsh legend…that the penny finally dropped that it is really the same plot-line as the story of Elen, or Helen, of the Ways, from Ancient Welsh myth (fragments of which have been preserved in the manuscripts known as the Welsh Triads and Mabinogion; many other versions exist – see recommended reading below) brought into the twenty-first century – more on that ancient story thread story in a moment.
In the film, the world weary and cynical (though he doesn’t yet know it) city investment boy Maximilian is forced to drop his worldly affairs to return to Provence, where he spent idyllic childhood summers with his Uncle Henry, because his long-time-not-seen uncle has just died and left him the property; a chateau with a vineyard. On first arriving there, Max is typically abrasive, hurried, unconscious and, mostly, very eager to sign the legal documents, sell up and leave again…but then, of course, he meets “the girl”, Fanny (who, it turns out, he has met before, as a child, though he doesn’t yet remember her or even realise he had, in effect, “lost her” or that what she represents is “missing” from his life) and something akin to magic happens. She is, of course, the divine feminine come vividly to life as a French goddess on a bicycle with a fiery temper and a derriere that has people falling into fountains. I won’t ruin the whole plot by picking over it but at first their relationship goes badly – a literal crash head-on – since this girl is no push-over and it’s only at the end that she finally accepts him back into “the garden” of her affections when she announces “it is only now that I recognise you, Max”. You could say she really meant the “true” Maximilian or his essence, beneath all the battle scars of his hard-nosed, earnings driven, power-wielding yet forever watching-your-own back kind of life. Of course, by now, he has ditched the job, even the dream partnership on a plate, to go back to “the garden” and be with this woman, at the now fruitful chateau, forever. The vines are restored, the family unit has come together in surprising ways, everyone is happy…and the sun continues to shine on those golden vistas. There is such a sense of homecoming, of reconciliation and of restoration, you could even say transformation. As ever with Ridley Scott, the message seems trivial but runs deeper than you know.
“And at the mouth of the river he beheld a castle, the fairest that man ever saw, and the gate of the castle was open, and he went into the castle. And in the castle he saw a fair hall, of which the roof seemed to be all gold, the walls of the hall seemed to be entirely of glittering precious gems, the doors all seemed to be of gold.” (The Mabinogion: The Dream of Macsen Welding.)
In the middle of this plot, there is a part where Max is “forced” to return to London to go back into the never-ending battle of his career affairs in the hard-nosed and cut-throat world of the London stock-market where the word “holiday” never gets mentioned for fear loosing your place in the pecking order. As these two world’s intersect, it’s so obvious how Canary Wharf, with its sharply contrasted chrome and glass, is filmed through a cold grey-blue filter compared to the amber warmth of the nature-filled Provence scenes. This is where I’m going to insert a reminder, for anyone not familiar with the story, of Elen and the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus (yes the name is even the same as the film), known in local texts as Macsen. In that legend, known as “The Dream of Macsen“, he dreams of a woman who fills him up with such a strong presence and experience of love but, when he wakes to find it was just a dream, such sadness and sense of loss that he sends a handful of messengers off far and wide to look for such a woman. When one reports back that they think they have found her, he drops his worldly concerns and sets sail for a far corner of Wales where he meets Elen, the most beautiful woman he could ever have imagined, from his dreams and falls for her on sight. Elen draws him into her natural world, but only as long as he enter such a world as an equal with her and in full cognisance of the true nature of sovereignty; that is, to understand that your power is equal only to how much you respect Nature as its custodian or guardian, not as a ruler over, or plunderer of, it. When you do so, the land remains abundant, water continues to flows and balance in all things is easily maintained; and when the masculine aspect returns to this knowledge, which has been in the safe keeping of the feminine across all of the rocky years in between, harmony is fully restored and healing swiftly takes place…a story for our times. In return, Macsen brings his male expertise to bear by building castles and a network of roads between them, uniting the land, at her request. Seven years into this idyllic outcome, Macsen is called back to Rome on urgent business, the matter of a war to be fought to keep dominion over his lands (just as Max gets called back to London to defend his position), so of course the spell is temporarily broken…but only until he decides to give all that up to return to the natural idyl that awaits him with Elen, his true love and his equal, to live out the rest of their days in balance and harmony.
Back to the film…at its end (apologies for any plot spoilers but if you have got this far, I have already blown holes in your suspense) we see Max and Fanny sit opposite one another, him the far softer-edged version of himself, as though all his cares and abrasive features have been slipped off with his shoes at the door. You can see how he now treads softly on the world, calibrated to the pace of this place, which he finds “intoxicating”, having entered it on her terms…one of these being that he now speak the language of this place; so we see the so-confident Max, once the wielder of the kind of sharp words that macheted through everyone on his path, slowly relearning his entire vocabulary from scratch in French, the language of love.
The additional play on the fact that Russel Crowe was previously known as Roman Emperor, Maximius (a fictional character) in the film Gladiator, also directed by Scott, could be coincidence but seems too pronounced a one to be so…surely; or is the world of uncanny synchronicities just so tied up in a bow that these things do happen “by pure chance”? I tend to suspect that Scott is familiar with Elen and Macsen from the Mabinogian and was having a private smile to himself as he recalibrated the story into this modern version, casting an actor who is perhaps best-known for playing a Roman Emperor as a clue for incurable dot-joiners such as I am. However, when you read the Wikipedia entry for how A Good Year came about, its story written by life-in-Provence memoire writer Peter Mayle, how it was then tweaked into a more dynamic screenplay, the way actors were chosen through a set of happy cross-overs (like the domestically settled Russell Crowe seeking a more gentle film to work on than the bigger, more world-weary plots he had always done before…yet another sync with the film’s plotline), seems like nothing but a series of happy coincidences. I still find that alignment of factors just astonishing, either way; as though this “story” was quite determined to be retold at this time in our history and so a series of cogs intersected to make it happen just the way that it did, and for all it was never been a big box-office success . In fact, I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s responded “yes, I’ve seen it ” when I’ve asked across all the years since I added it to my favourite stash (it was released in 2006). For me, like any good vintage, its just seems to get better year on year and, perhaps, has yet to be fully appreciated; becoming more mellow yet full-bodied and, yes, more relevant with time.
You just know at the end that Max is in for much more than just a good year; more like, a good rest of his life, returned to his most idyllic domain to live in perfect harmony with this woman and more-than equal who will take no nonsense from him; the masculine aspect returned, disarmed, healed and rebalanced in relationship with the once “lost” feminine. His priorities have been recalibrated, his faith restored, his view vastly improved, his purpose softer yet significanly more aligned with fulfilment and joy. We could hope for no more than this from the plot of the most ideal and entertaining films which (like the stuff of fireside legend and myth) deliver their message subtly and with all the trappings of wonderful visuals, good humour and romance; this is not the first time I have considered Ridley Scott to be a genius of the film medium when it comes to delivering more than you, perhaps, even realise as you watch. Perhaps the reason I love to re-watch this one, in particular, is that it reaffirms my own courage and resolve to go after these qualities (you’ll get bored with your new life” declares Max’s friend; but you somehow know that he wont…) in my own life and reminds me of the kind of golden ending that awaits when I dare to follow through.
Quotes used from A Good Year are approximate and paraphrased.
For more about Elen, I recommend “Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways“, a collection of cross-cultural accounts edited by Caroline Wise.
Film location Chateau La Canorgue