Friday, May 24, 2013

Casks & Caskets: Blood of the Vine, Seasons 1 & 2

Murder and vino have always gone together, ever since Montresor offed Fortunato in “A Cask of Amontillado,” so who would make a better amateur sleuth than an enologist (wine expert)?  For a vintner accused of murder, Benjamin Lebel is the man to call in Blood of the Vine (promo here), seasons one and two, now available as two separate 2-DVD sets from MHz Networks.

In the series opener, Tears of Pasquin, the Bordeaux based Lebel puts the moves on an attractive colleague, France Pelletier.  She is mature enough to consider his assistants, Mathilde and Silvère, wet-behind-the-ears kids, but she is still young enough to look good on his arm.  Over the next two seasons, she will become accustomed to having romantic dinners and weekend getaways interrupted by murder.

Pasquin happens to be one of the series’ more intriguing crime stories.  What appears to be a serial killer case ultimately involves the nasty legacy of Vichy era collaboration. That still seems bold for French television.  Pasquin also introduces Lebel to Commander Barbaroux of the Bordeaux police force, who is admittedly befuddled by the rare bottles of Pasquin left at multiple murder scenes.  He calls in Lebel as a consultant, but quickly has misgivings.

Loyal Silvère looks different in Le Coup de Jarnac, but replacement Yoann Denaive and the rest of the regulars will stick around for the balance of the first two seasons.  Hired to audit the storied Aludel cognac distillery divided by feuding siblings, Lebel and his assistant receive a rather frosty reception at the chateau.  However, Lebel is quite welcome at the tavern in town co-owned by his old flame, Shirley.  Unfortunately, the legendary mixer and friendliest Aludel heir falls victim to an untimely accident. 

Vine often features well known guest stars (at least to French audiences), such as Marisa Berenson, the co-star of films like Barry Lyndon and Cabaret, as well as a one-time guest host of The Muppet Show.  As Shirley, she and series star Pierre Arditi have a nice wistfully flirtatious thing going on.

Likewise, Margaux’s Robe features another notable guest star, Arditi’s daughter Rachel, playing Lebel’s daughter, Margaux.  Recently, returned from New York, Margaux Lebel has accepted a PR job with a new Chateau owner who is absolutely, positively not a member of the Russian mob.  When sabotage kills Margaux’s co-worker-lover and badly injures her, the Soviet educated Swiss mogul puts pressure on Lebel to solve the case quickly or he will do it his way, which adds a good twist to elegant sleuthing.

Fittingly, the first season ends with one of the better crafted mysteries, while also challenging Lebel’s loyalties.  When a former assistant’s struggling chateau is beset by a suspicious outbreak, Lebel comes to investigate.  Knowing the grand dame who once fired him covets their land, Lebel pays a visit to the regal Mme. Newman.  Both Arditi and Judith Magre (probably best known for Louis Malle’s The Lovers) clearly relish their affectionately acid-dripped banter.

Season two begins with A Question of Brandy . . . or Death.  Once again, Lebel and his assistants have been hired to assess a struggling distillery.  In this case, it is the Baron Castayrac who expects Lebel to simply sign off on his insurance claim, but the enologist does not play that game.  Pretty much every key element of the series comes into play in this episode, with a union boss of questionable repute thrown in as an added bonus.

Golden Wedding in Sauternes might be one of Vine’s best episodes, thanks to a surprisingly touching performance from Dominique Pinon (Micmacs, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) as Milou Savin, the ailing friend of an elderly wine collecting couple gunned down by a presumed thief.  On the other hand, the subplot in which Silvère does everything possible to make himself a suspect gets quickly tiresome.

Food and Setbacks in the Loire Valley starts off with a clever murder set-up.  A famous actor accidentally kills his co-star wife when a stage gun is replaced with the real deal.  There are betrayals all over the place and of course, a wine cellar, but what really distinguishes the episode is pro-handgun theme.  A victim of an awful crime at a young age, Mathilde now carries a piece and she knows how to use it—a fact that comes in handy.

Inheritance is major preoccupation in Vine, for obvious reasons.  In The Silky Widows Lebel finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between a recently widowed matriarch and her less recently widowed daughter-in-law.  On the positive side, he finally gets an opportunity to craft his first champagne.

Blood of the Vine is a good mystery series for Memorial Day viewing.  Unlike typically urban noirs, most of the action takes place in sun-drenched fields and picturesque chateaus.  It definitely skews towards an older audience, but there is considerably more hanky-panky and tons more drinking than in Murder She Wrote.  Much like BBC mysteries, each installment clocks in around an hour and a half, so there is time for a fair amount of plot development.  Still, it is usually easy to spot the murderers.  They are the ones who have had their characters established, but do not seem to have something specific to do.

A regular presence in Alain Resnais films, Arditi looks like he enjoys the rich trappings of Lebel’s rarified world. Vaguely resembling musician John McLaughlin, he rather nicely balances the mature and mischievous aspects of Lebel’s persona.  There is nothing revolutionary here, but it is all quite pleasant and sophisticated.  Recommended for Francophiles and cozy mystery fans, Blood of the Vine is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.