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Boundaries, in wine as in politics, are as random as the people who invent them

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots.

In gruesome times, as this little landmass drifts politically ever farther from the European coast, sparkling wine news gives drink for thought. Louis Pommery England is not actually terribly English; it’s a collaboration between Pommery Champagne and Hampshire’s Hattingley Valley, although the grapes, they hasten to assure us, are as British as Brexit.

Are they, though? I don’t wish to be difficult, but Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are French imports. All those sturdy Hampshire vines, bearing the plump fruit of this splendid, soon-to-be-isolated island, had to come from somewhere. How long must a vine root in English soil to be considered native?

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots. Champagne may be one of the glories of France, drunk by Napoleon, famously, in victory and in defeat, but it was also adored by the Russians, whose vast and chilly acreage helped ensure his downfall. Some 50 years after the retreat from Moscow, Roederer Champagne was selling 650,000 bottles a year to the nation that destroyed Napoleon’s dream of continental domination.

And Roederer itself presents a problem, from the patriotic perspective, when you consider that the first Roederer was not a Monsieur but a Herr. We all know how Champagne suffered during two world wars: the soil that nurtures Pinot Noir was soaked in blood. But when you live 200km from the Franco-German border, it isn’t only troops who march in: like Roederer, the houses of Krug, Bollinger, and Deutz were all founded by German immigrants. On a recent visit to Deutz, I kept mispronouncing “Dertz” as “Doytz”; I was unconsciously associating it with Deutsch, the German for German. William Deutz founded his winery in Aÿ, next door to his compatriot Bollinger’s house, in 1838, the year of Victoria’s coronation. The new queen’s mother, paternal grandparents and future husband were all German; her grandfather, King George III, was the first of their house whose mother tongue was English. How long must a royal family root in English soil to be considered native?

 “Our name pushed us to find distant markets where people were less intensely anti-German,” says Jean-Marc Lallier, the sixth generation of Deutzes since William. One of those markets was not so distant. In the late 19th century, 80 per cent of Deutz exports went through its English agent, which means they were sundowners all over the empire on which the sun never set.

In Deutz’s pretty château, full of ancestors’ portraits, I taste Hommage à William Deutz 2010: 100 per cent Pinot Noir, all from two vineyards just outside the window. “My grandfather made a William Deutz that was 90 per cent Pinot Noir,” says Lallier; “he was very austere, not funny and not very sexy either, and his cuvée was a bit like him. In 1966 my father made it a Blanc de Blancs. Pure Chardonnay in Aÿ, heartland of Pinot Noir: Grandfather was furious!”

Their modern Blanc de Blancs, the gorgeous Amour de Deutz, comes from Grand Cru vineyards a few kilometres away. I gaze out at William’s Pinot, so similar to England’s and yet so different, and drink, with sadness, to the understanding that political boundaries are as arbitrary as the people who invent them, and that in the human as in the vinous sense there is, in fact, no such thing as an island. 

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game