Haley Bennett on turning heartache into bubbly success as the Grande Dame of Champagne in “Widow Clicquot”

Haley Bennett on turning heartache into bubbly success as the Grande Dame of Champagne in “Widow Clicquot”

Pop some bubbly: The true story of the woman behind one of the largest champagne houses in history is coming to the big screen.

Widow Clicquot, adapted from the book The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, tells the story of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (played by Haley Bennett), otherwise known as Veuve Clicquot — yes, that Veuve Clicquot.

Set in France during the Napoleonic Wars and told over a 10-year span from approximately 1797 to 1807, the film, which is directed by Thomas Napper and also stars Tom Sturridge and Sam Riley, follows Ponsardin as she defies convention after her husband dies — leaving her a veuve, or widow, at just 27 — as she takes over the reins of the fledgling wine business they had fostered together, and ultimately steering the business to great success.

She eventually became known as the "Grande Dame of Champagne" and is credited with major breakthroughs, such as creating the first known vintage champagne in 1810, and inventing the riddling table process to clarify bubbly six years later — making her one of the world's first great businesswomen and one of the wealthiest women of her time.

Ahead of the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12, Bennett, who also produces the film with partner Joe Wright and Christina Weiss Lurie, talks exclusively to EW about the empowering lessons she learned playing this character, the "kismet" way she got the National's Bryce Dessner involved in the film, and her favorite champagne memory.

Widow Clicquot
Widow Clicquot

WME Independent Haley Bennett in 'Widow Clicquot'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the spirit of the film, what's a favorite memory you have involving champagne? Or do you even like champagne?

HALEY BENNETT: I do. I love champagne. It's so funny because the story is about champagne, but for me, it's such an intimate story that I've in some ways separated the champagne from the story. It's such a personal story about a woman and her struggles and her eventual triumph, as we know, as she's remembered as the Grande Dame of Champagne. But I would say, first of all, we had the blessing of Veuve Clicquot. And I guess one of my best memories of champagne was when we were developing the film and we were given personal guidance from the brand's historian, and access to the archives and the Clicquot estate, and incredible insight. And I remember walking through the authentic Veuve Clicquot caves that have been there forever, since the Napoleonic rule and even before, and we opened a bottle of champagne, and we had a toast to Miss Ponsardin Clicquot — in the real caves! It was incredible. And they're extraordinary there. They're so beautiful, and they feel like they truly are haunted. And so having a rare edition of Veuve Clicquot in these caves felt so surreal.

The film has had a long road to the screen, but when did you personally become invested in telling this story?

I first was given the book, The Widow Clicquot, by my friend Jackie, and she is a master of wine, she's a young sommelier. She was with me in Notto, Italy when I was making Cyrano, and I read the book in Italy during lockdown. And I'm not a winemaker, nor do I have an interest in wine beyond drinking it, but I expected to read a story about bubbles and luxury, and what I distilled from it and what was interesting to me was this young woman, Barbe-Nicole, who is remembered as the Grande Dame of Champagne — she's the "veuve" — and she became what is known as the first businesswoman in France, and the face of an icon. But, what came before that, was strife and heartbreak and tragedy and failures and overwhelming doubt. And I found that, in particular, interesting and powerful. How the woman survived, that's what always interests me in stories: how women survive, and how they come out on the other side, especially a woman like her. That's what I really related to in the story.

What was the most interesting thing you learned in the process of making the film?

It's really about how we define strength as women, and also how we identify with success. She's an icon and someone who has been incredibly successful. But we don't start at that point. We don't just get to success. The story begins with her as a widow, so she's endured this incredible heartbreak, and then it's told by uncovering what happened. What I think is particularly beautiful for me is that winemaking in this story is more of a metaphor for healing and growing and for her and my own personal journey — we all have such unique journeys and Barbe's is one of the most unique stories that I've had the opportunity to bring to the screen — but she used winemaking as an opportunity to grow. And in the process of doing that, she revolutionized champagne with her inventions, but it was a way for her to heal from her heartache, and try to observe her life and kind of right the wrongs of the past, in a way.

Widow Clicquot
Widow Clicquot

WME Independent Haley Bennett in 'Widow Clicquot'

It's interesting you say that about the metaphor, because when I think of making wine, I think of patience and time, which is also such a crucial part of a healing journey.

Yeah, it's something that you have to nurture — our own personal journeys. We definitely decided early on, we didn't want to make a film about the practical elements of making champagne necessarily. All of her incredible contributions to the winemaking industry are a given, but we felt that wouldn't be as cinematic or nuanced. Instead, we really wanted to focus on the human truth, the universal truth of her journey and what the meaning of the creative process is, and its ability to heal and to reveal ourselves in a way. And also how sometimes adversity becomes the catalyst to change in our own lives. She was a widow, but the fact that she was a widow, it's not a poor-me story. It's like, the fact that she's a widow means she was no longer able to really hide in the shadow of her husband. She was put out there and put in an incredibly vulnerable position that had she not done that, she might not have grown to her full potential.

It sounds like you got a lot out of the experience of making Widow Clicquot.

I got so much out of the experience. I truly feel empowered by the experience. And I really feel like there was so much for me to learn through unpacking this character.

Are you planning to go to TIFF to premiere the film?

Yes. We were given an interim agreement, and we have the support of SAG-AFTRA to be screening and promoting our film at TIFF. We worked with independent financiers to get the film made, and we shot it independently in Europe. And I'm so excited to have the opportunity to share the film with TIFF audiences.

Widow Clicquot
Widow Clicquot

WME Independent Sam Riley and Haley Bennett in 'Widow Clicquot'

Will it be the first time you've seen it with a big crowd?

Yes, it'll be the first time I've seen it with an audience, though I was pretty heavily involved in post-production. And another really exciting thing about the film that I can't wait to share with everyone is the score. It was done by my friend Bryce Dessner of the National, who also worked on the music for Cyrano. And it's so funny, it was such a kismet thing that happened: I was living in Rome with my partner, Joe [Wright], who I also produced the film with, and I was on the flight from Rome where he was working on [M. Son of the Century], and I was traveling to France to start rehearsals with Tom Sturridge and Sam Riley. And who was sitting behind me? My friends — Bryce Dessner and his family — and they happen to live in France. He has a place in Paris, which we've stayed at and is super cozy, and I put two and two together. We really needed a French composer, and he could work in France, and my wheels were turning, going, "I'm gonna ask him to be the composer of this," and that happened to be such a chance thing that must have been meant to be. It's so, so beautiful. I love it.

Widow Clicquot premieres Sept. 12 at TIFF and is a sales title.

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