The first thing we learn at the start of Thomas Napper’s Widow Clicquot is that Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot (Haley Bennett) loved her husband François (Tom Sturridge). The second thing we learn is that the vineyard that held his name was synonymous with himself. Not just in death––as the film begins with Barbe dressing for his funeral––but in life too. It is where he spent all his time. Where he welcomed his new wife into every breath he took. And where he will live on in her memory as she preserves the vines to ensure he’s never forgotten.
To say all this would suggest the film is about François. That he permeates every single moment, however, is less about his impact on the world than his impact on her. It’s Barbe who left a mark: she’s the one who revolutionized the champagne industry during Napoleon’s trade embargoes, the one who created and bottled the Comet, considered among the best vintages in history. That she couldn’t have done it without her late husband is a testament to the love they shared. And her success proves the truth that gender discrimination does nothing but hold progress back.
Exquisitely told by Erin Dignam (adapted from Tilar J. Mazzeo’s book) with a script that jumps between past and present on emotional lines more than narrative ones, we watch Barbe rise from arranged marriage to business manager with an unwavering dedication to the work above everything. Winemaking is put on display as an art form, a passion demanding ingenuity and invention to evolve and perfect despite the small minds of self-aggrandizing men. So while the film is still a love story and biography, it’s also a process-driven historical document. We learn about Barbe the most when working the fields beside her employees.
The power in that juxtaposition is one that men like her father-in-law (Ben Miles’ Phillipe) and even her staunchest ally (Sam Riley’s wine seller Louis Bohne) cannot fathom––they’ve never had reason to think beyond the tyrannical hierarchies that let Napoleon bring France into war. Whereas her presence earns respect from her workers, those who scoff at the mud and callouses deem it a sign of weakness because, in their minds, it is the ability to not work that makes them strong. Widow Clicquot is therefore timely on many levels. Women’s rights. Sex-positivity. Fair and equitable labor.
That it’s also a stirring romance––both beyond the grave and with one’s vocation––speaks to the depth of the storytelling. So much is said via memories of François’ resolute trust and pride in Barbe’s expertise. Even more comes from her response to his downfall thanks to mental instability and opium. The moment he dies, Phillipe is ready to sell everything to Moet. It doesn’t matter that Barbe has been in control for many seasons already or that the vineyard (save Paul Rhys’ Droite) firmly had her back. She is a woman. Unproven. A bad investment. She could put gold in their pockets and they’d still refuse her.
Even so, her road to respect and solvency isn’t without hiccups. Her ideas often prove too forward-thinking, leaving the line between risk and reward razor thin. She owns every mistake, though, taking from her own pocket to reimburse those whose work allowed her to take big swings even if doing so puts her head on the chopping block. That’s leadership. That’s power. As the men raise their voices and pound their fists, Barbe simply stands with a small smile to say her peace, call out their hypocrisy, and never back down. Because the belief of only two people truly matters: François to set her on this path and her own to see it through.
And Bennett is wonderful as always. Her ability to show strength through vulnerability is unparalleled. Barbe is harboring a lot of guilt (the origins of which will be revealed soon enough), but it doesn’t overshadow her obsession. Yes, she’s honoring her husband, but through their shared dream. So she isn’t giving anything up. The only thing she’s lost was conversely taken away. Her journey is thus inspirational: empowering, progressive, and poignant. I only wish that when the end text summarizing the rest of Barbe’s life says, “The methods she engineered are still used today by all champagne producers …,” the ellipsis was followed by “even Moet.”
Widow Clicquot premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.