Cinema loves Champagne

Nov 27, 2020 • 4 mins

The love story between Champagne and cinema is one of the greatest of all time. As far back as 1896, the likes of Moët & Chandon and Mercier were revelling in the spotlight cast upon them by the Lumière brothers’ camera. It was the ultimate revelation of what lay hidden behind their vine leaves.

The portrayal of champagne became only more indecent in the years that followed. From a dancing bottle of champagne in the nightmare of a hopeless drunkard (Dream of the Moon by Velle and Zecca, 1905) to our all-time hero 007 knocking back endless flutes of Dom Pérignon, Bollinger and Taittinger… the censors were getting slightly hot under the collar!

Decadence, prohibition…

The golden era of this love affair between Champagne and Cinema was, without doubt, the 1920s. The luxurious cinematic adaptations of The Great Gatsby spring to mind, in particular Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version. The Moët may have been flowing but there is something bland, dreary and overly polished about the film itself.   

If indulgence, decadence and frivolity are your thing, then you’ll have to pray to Saint Google to find you the nefarious Merry-Go-Round by Erich von Stroheim and Rupert Julian (1923). This major work and its actors are now royalty-free. Champagne is depicted as the social marker of a decadent and piteous Viennese aristocracy. But beware, don’t let your teenage kids watch it as their libidos may never recover! 

 This era was also one of Prohibition and the small screen knew exactly how to depict the dirty dealings that went on behind the scenes at these extravagant parties. The King of Champagne (episode 30 from season 2 of The Untouchables, 1961) tells the tale of a dandy who strikes up a friendship with a bottle maker with the intention of producing and smuggling counterfeit champagne.

… and ordinary people

The relationship between Champagne and cinema, however, is much more than just a series of black and white clichés. It strikes a chord with ordinary people, couples getting together, friends meeting up and alliances being made. 

The most heartwarming scene, in my opinion, features the unpretentious wastrel of Ferdinand le Noceur (René Sti, 1935). Although Fernandel acts and sings with no real credibility, the final wedding reception scene is a fabulous depiction of the Parisian petty bourgeoisie of the 1930s. It’s all there, from the rented costumes to the floral arrangements on the tables and the carnations in their buttonholes… And mouth wide open, floating like a dead fish in an ice bucket, an unbranded and somewhat uninspiring bottle of champagne!

You could say that, behind this deeply relatable scene, the very essence of champagne’s past, present and future lies hidden. It portrays the notion of sharing something you know will be good, it is the experience and sanctification of a special moment in time in even the most ordinary of existences.

It is the very essence of the work drinks party organised by Santini’s colleagues in the film The Closet (Francis Veber 2001).

In it, we can just about make out a bottle of champagne with a distinctive ‘Cordon Rouge’ and our cultural reflexes tell us at once that this red ribbon is that of the eternally elegant Mumm. The same technique was used 60 years earlier in the film Casablanca, by Michael Curtiz (1942). 

Two interpretations of Champagne

Beyond the image of a degenerate lush, cinema brings us two interpretation of champagne. The first feeds our imagination with the depiction of heroes of all kinds. The second evokes the timeless rituals of social customs and an agreed union.

So, which is ‘your’ champagne?

The champagne of Gatsby, of Bond or of Fernandel? Speaking for myself, I would love to have lived in the Paris of the 1960s, Catherine Deneuve on one side and a glass of Veuve Clicquot in the other! (Heartbeat, Alain Cavalier, 1968).

Article written as part of an educational project of the Wine Journalism University Diploma of the Georges Chappaz Institute - University of Reims