If David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi offered the titular chef’s sushi-making process as an implicit metaphor for the artistic process, Red Obsession offers the ins and outs of the world of wine as an implicit metaphor for art appreciation—from both aesthetic and financial standpoints. The opening half hour of Warwick Ross and David Roach’s film not only details the history of wine in the French Bordeaux region, from the first vines planted by the Romans 2,000 years ago to Napoleon Bonaparte’s demand that Bordeaux wines be ranked in order of excellence, but also offers an infectious introduction into oenophilia for the uninitiated. One can sense the filmmakers’ passion for the subject not just in their eloquent description of wine-tasting as “a transient moment that can leave an indelible impression” (a line that voiceover narrator Russell Crowe lends an undeniable gravitas in his reading of it), but also in both the gleam in the eyes of various wine makers and critics and cinematographer Lee Pullbrook’s crisp and seductive images, with bottles captured in attractive arrangements for the camera.
As ever in this world, however, art also has to compete with commerce. Thus, after the miniature wine-appreciation class of its opening half hour, Red Obsession proceeds to narrow its focus to the emerging wine market, one in which Bordeaux wines, especially, have become such valuable luxury items that the U.S. basically ended up pricing itself out of the market—which led the way for that emerging economic world power China to take the market by storm and turned it into their new “silk road.” With an increasing number of rich Chinese people collecting wines as a way to show off their status, and with some entrepreneurs even starting up their own chateaux in the country’s more farther-out rural areas, the wine market as it has recently manifested itself in China isn’t much different from the art market, with works being bought, sold, and traded to high-end collectors as much for the sake of collecting as it is for any genuine appreciation of a work’s actual artistic qualities. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to the current ongoing Eurozone crisis, this “wine bubble” of sorts appears to have already burst in the past year.
All of this is detailed by the filmmakers with a relatively refreshing emphasis on facts and testimonials; they’re not out to make any kind of political argument as much as they are interested in introducing us all to a topic that some might not think to take seriously. Red Obsession may not set the world on fire as a piece of doc filmmaking, but its obvious passion for its subject and its informativeness make up for what it lacks in aesthetic daring. The highest compliment one can offer to the film is that it may well inspire one to a higher appreciation of wine while also bringing about a greater awareness of the market forces that turn even the highest art into commodities.