TIFF 2023 Review: “Widow Cliquot” Offers a Bubbly Portrait of a Woman with Champagne Problems

“When they struggle, they become more self-reliant,” Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (Haley Bennett) says of the grapevines growing in the fields of the winery that her husband left her with in “Widow Cliquot,” trying to convince her staff to replant the soil when they don’t see the necessity in it. If Francois (Tom Sturridge) were still alive, he surely wouldn’t be questioned when those who worked for him knew he could go against conventional wisdom – and being a man, he wouldn’t be spoken to as a woman would in Napoleon-era France, but Barbe-Nicole, who is typically referred to as “the Widow,” doesn’t get such benefit of the doubt when it comes to carrying on his legacy, having to test the limits of every idea and interaction to understand its breaking point and to retain ownership of the business and the land would require it.

From the much of the same creative team that reimagined “Cyrano” with such spirit a year ago — with star Haley Bennett and her partner Joe Wright, in a producing capacity, and composer Bryce Dessner, who gives the 19th century tale a stirring, propulsive score — the drama about one of France’s most beloved entrepreneurs has a healthy mix of old fashioned charms and contemporary notions about form and function as Erin Dignam and Christopher Monger’s script shrewdly crosscuts between Barbe-Nicole’s romance with Francois and seeing his work through after an untimely death where she is expected to care for their young daughter Clementine, but not necessarily the business he left behind. An offer is on the table to sell to another winemaker who ensures the family will live in comfort for the rest of their days, but that simply wouldn’t suit Barbe-Nicole, who lives with the intimate knowledge of how Francois planned to revolutionize the practice of making champagne and just needed a little more time to experiment.

Inevitably, the film leans somewhat on a tried-and-true formula for the story of a self-determined woman challenging a patriarchal system, but in telling of her inspiration to do so, “The Widow Cliquot” come across as inspired itself. Director Thomas Napper creates a dialogue between the past and present where Barbe-Nicole can be seen asking questions of herself and finding answers in her memories of Francois, as if he still has the ability to whisper in her ear, though his voice is faint for other reasons. She also has the counsel of Louis Bohne (Sam Riley), a wine salesman who is less discouraging than others of Barbe-Nicole’s ideas to skirt Napoleon’s trade embargo towards countries he’s deemed enemies to the state, and the film does well to chronicle a relationship between the two that may not entirely be all business, but shows how Barbe-Nicole prizes practicality at every turn. Bennett is quite captivating as the widow who discovers her calling, and as in “Cyrano,” she finds the sweet spot between playing a woman of the times with a genuine curiosity about the future, never suggesting she knows better than anyone else, but also aware if she doesn’t put herself forward no one else will. It’s a brutal industry Ponsardin enters, making her achievements well-worth toasting and “Widow Cliquot” knows just what with.

“The Widow Cliquot” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival again at 1 pm on September 13th at the Scotiabank 1 and September 15th at 3 pm at the Scotiabank 2.

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