When does wine have bubbles but isn’t sparkling? When the market for Bordeaux gets out of hand.
That’s not a joke. It’s something learned from Red Obsession, a documentary that appears to be about wine but is really about an economy. And like with many films about the financial world these days, this one is particularly concerned with a market peaking and then bursting. Welcome to the business of Bordeaux, which has long been considered the source of some of the finest, most prestigious wines in the world. The majority of that wine is the red variety, but that’s not necessarily why the title is what it is. “Red” here can also refer to the Chinese, since their economic growth has not only yielded enough millionaires and billionaires to afford the best of the region’s bottles but enough large-scale wealthy to have the country cornering the market.
The film is written and directed by David Roach and Warwick Ross, making their debut at the helm 25 years after producing the goofy Australian comedy Young Einstein (they’ve since worked with Yahoo Serious on his other films, as well), and it’s the sort of documentary that would be so much better if there weren’t so many people in it, talking and filling the screen with their faces. Not that we’d get all of the story without the interviewees, which consist of snooty makers, marketers and buyers of wine from different parts of the globe (not America, though, as we can’t afford the stuff anymore), but we’d also not get too much story, which as it stands gets really old in as short a time as this 75-minute feature runs. The landscape cinematography, though, is gorgeous and could have made for a very nice film of the vineyards and chateaus.
If necessary, the voice-over narration read by Russell Crowe could stay. It’s part sufficient exposition and part over-written prose about the history and current economic narrative of Bordeaux wine. When Red Obsession opens on a time-lapse shot of a wine field, Crowe’s voice is immediately heard in an epic yet soft-spoken manner as if it’s the opening of one of his period action flicks, like a Gladiator or Robin Hood. It’s impossible for him to say the word “Romans” and us not expect a cut to a bloody ancient battle. At other times, particularly during overhead shots of the land while Crowe is describing these places, he confirms that he’d be a perfect narrator for an IMAX nature documentary.
For a short while, I actually got a Herzog-ian vibe from the film. Some of the on screen discussion of wine and Bordeaux specifically went to places about how each bottle is a character and to drink of it is to hear its story. Crowe then comes back on to say something about wine being art, only these masterpieces have a short existence once exposed to the world, unlike a painting surviving the centuries. And suddenly there’s Francis Ford Coppola for a single-edit appearance switching the poetic language over to call Bordeaux timeless in a way that lets him feel like he’s sharing a glass with Thomas Jefferson. Very briefly, Red Obsession is as deep as Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Then the film shifts focus to introduce the Chinese. For a long while, it goes into the background of how and why China is such an enormous economic power. It’s too long. I forgot there was that MacGuffin of the wine and that I wasn’t just watching yet another report on the new money of the PRC. We meet a dildo magnate who owns more than $60m worth of Bordeaux of all kinds. Seemingly interchangeably we next meet a manufacturer of a different kind of plastic toy — creepy animatronic dolls. They’re each in the film for only a few seconds, offering a fascinating contrast against the stuffy Europeans we met before, and it would have been nice to just stay on them for the rest of the time.
But there are other places to go, some less interesting than others. Roach and Ross cover the significance of branding, address the problem of fakes, which is of course a part of any luxury good industry, and present the fear that the obscenely steep and rapid rise in value for the wines will result in a bust not unlike the housing crash in the US. As Red Obsession keeps going, though, it lost me more and more with each new subtopic until I found myself growing completely disinterested in the point of the documentary. And maybe there’s enough wine connoisseurs out there to disagree with me on this, but I just didn’t care about what happened to the wine market and how it might affect these merchants and traders and collectors of a beverage of only abstract importance as long as it’s not being imbibed.
I’ve been known to get pretty drowsy while drinking wine, but this documentary nearly put me to sleep in shorter time.