‘Widow Cliquot,’ opens Sonoma International Film Festival

Sonoma International Film Festival opens with “Widow Cliquot,” the tale of the grande dame of Champagne, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the woman credited with creating the champagne industry in the early 1800s.|

If you go

What: Sonoma International Film Festival. Opening night film is ‘Widow Cliquot.’

Where: Various locations. Opening night film screening at 6:30 p.m. at Sebastiani Theatre at 476 1st St E and Sonoma Veterans Hall #1 at 126 1st St W.

When: March 20 - 24, 2024, various times.

More Info: https://sonomafilmfest.org/festival.

Sonoma’s International Film Festival returns this week, screening a diverse selection of films in several locations, along with special parties and events for industry guests and local festival-goers.

Of the 107 films, which includes 48 shorts, a must-see is on opening night, a fitting selection as the five-day event falls during Women’s History Month.

“Widow Cliquot” highlights the theme of strong females in history and their impact on women today. Produced by Mexican-American documentary and independent film producer Christina Weiss Lurie and directed by Thomas Napper, the film is based on the true story of Madame Cliquot.

Known as the Grande Dame of Champagne, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was the pioneer behind the first vintage Champagne, Veuve Clicquot.

Two showings of “Widow Cliquot” are screening at Sebastiani Theatre and Sonoma Veterans Hall #1 at 6:30 p.m. March 20.

Madame Clicquot, played by Haley Bennett, is credited for creating the Champagne industry, at a time when women had few rights. When the young pioneer was widowed just before her 28th birthday, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin took on her husband’s business at a Champagne house in Reims, France.

Set in the early 1800s, a period where women were unable to own property ― let alone run a business ― Madame Cliquot advanced her late husband François Marie Clicquot’s techniques to create modern Champagne in 1810.

Although a work of fiction, “Widow Cliquot” tells the true story of a female entrepreneur, who, when faced with the decision to either give up the business she and her husband had developed, or become a winemaker, goes against all odds ― and succeeds.

“I really like strong female characters, is what it boils down to. ‘Widow Cliqcuot,’ which is based on a book by Tilar Mazzeo called ‘The Widow Cliquot,’ is exactly that,” Weiss said.

“I read her book at least 10 years ago, and I was totally drawn to the story of this woman who was entrepreneurial, resourceful, intelligent, bodacious, especially in the early 1800s. And I felt it was a story that was relevant today, and as relevant today as it was almost 200 years ago.”

American-Canadian historian, wine writer and author of best selling works of narrative fiction, Tilar Mazzeo, published “The Widow Cliquot” in 2008.

Mazzeo conducted research in France as well as Sonoma and Napa counties, and wrote the book while living in Cotati. Her local research included interviewing female winemakers and learning specifics of the winemaking process.

Having the film premiere in the U.S. in wine country during Women’s History Month is fitting, but is especially significant because it’s happening here in Sonoma County where she wrote the book, Mazzeo said.

“I was writing a nonfiction book that was really about the scope of her life and that Champagne House, and the movie really takes a kind of personal, more intimate look at her as a character,” Mazzeo said. “So, different projects in certain ways, but it's a really great feeling.”

As a historian, Mazzeo’s book was based on the evidence and clear facts she uncovered through research.

“Because Barbe-Nicole didn't leave historical records about her private life, I think she did have a love affair or at least strong feelings for Louis Bohne, who is the salesman after her husband died,” Mazzeo said. “But of course, I don't have the evidence as a nonfiction author to develop that.”

Mazzeo said gut feelings and hints can tell her what happened historically, but without evidence, it’s more difficult to convey in works of nonfiction.

“But what was great about the film is that because it's a movie and because they're allowed to imagine, they imagine Barbe-Nicole as this very rich and full character with a kind of interiority.”

“So I was a bit jealous of them that they were able to do that,” she laughed. “It's great to see her come to life for me.”

Both the producer and the original author of the book said they’re thrilled with leading actress Bennett’s performance. Weiss called Bennett a “fantastic young Widow Cliquot,” and Mazzeo said, “Haley Bennett is Barbe-Nicole.”

“Every story I've done is totally different, and so you start with either a book or an article inspired by true facts and then you try and develop as interesting and strong characters as possible,” Weiss said. “And find the actors who are as passionate as you are on the subject, those wanting to play the roles because these films are a true labor of love.”

Weiss said the production was an true ensemble piece in terms of the dedicated cast, crew, and director, all working towards the goal of making the best film possible to tell this inspirational story.

“I love the fact that she was a holy contemporary woman living at a time when building a business was an absolute challenge and even more, (it) was illegal at the time for a woman to own a business,” Weiss said.

The producer said she is proud they’ve made a beautiful film, one that stands the test of time and hopefully inspires young female entrepreneurs. She hopes it will touch a lot of people, that viewers are drawn to the 27-year-old pioneer, and that they strive for the same success in whichever fields they are in.

“She’s a very inspirational story, but women have always been at the heart of the wine industry; we’ve always had that space,” Mazzeo said.

In her research, Mazzeo discovered there were many female winemakers in the early 1800s. When looking at the books of Madame Cliquot’s rival, Jean-Rémy Moët of Moët & Chandon, Mazzeo found that 50% of Moet’s wine came from female winemakers.

“Moet was not a feminist; let’s put it that way,” she said. “But in the 18th century, 50% of the people they bought wine from were women and they were widows in particular.”

But what’s exceptional about Madame Cliquot’s story, Mazzeo said, is she was a wealthy widow and was allowed to run the Champagne house while most of the other women were working class. And as an upper-class citizen, she decided to do the same thing.

“I was always astonished by the fact that she herself lived in this very restricted narrow world. I mean, she was not able to travel, really, without a chaperone, and her husband was dead,” Mazzeo said. “So she didn't travel and yet she develops a business empire that exports Champagne as far as places like Greenland.”

Mazzeo said the widow’s salesman, Louis Bohne, becomes her conduit to the world, her agent.

“But she’s not somebody who historically in her own life really had a lot of agency. The agency that she had, and this is what they explore really beautifully in the film, is in the end, the choice was simply the choice not to sell,” Mazzeo said. “Not to give up the business that she and her husband had had developed. That was really the only power in her, is to be a winemaker, or not be a winemaker.”

“That was something I remember, just really being astonished by doing the research, is sort of understanding how limited her scope really was. And that she managed to live really, really big in a pretty tight box.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Molloy at emma.molloy@sonomanews.com.

If you go

What: Sonoma International Film Festival. Opening night film is ‘Widow Cliquot.’

Where: Various locations. Opening night film screening at 6:30 p.m. at Sebastiani Theatre at 476 1st St E and Sonoma Veterans Hall #1 at 126 1st St W.

When: March 20 - 24, 2024, various times.

More Info: https://sonomafilmfest.org/festival.

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