Like Nanni Moretti’s Palme d’Or winning La stanza del figlio (2001), it is nigh-on impossible to come to Father of My Children without some prior knowledge of the key event which is to shape the film’s trajectory, nor is it possible to address its themes without revealing this piece of information; readers wishing to attempt to come to the film with completely fresh eyes are therefore encouraged to stop reading here. What is surprising about Mia Hansen-Løve’s film, though, is just how being in possession of the knowledge that the main character is to kill themselves matters so little to the enjoyment of, and startlement at, what is an extraordinarily confident work from this precociously gifted young writer/director.
At the film’s centre is a true-life tragedy: the suicide in 2005 of French movie producer Humbert Balsan, a man who had worked with the esteemed likes of Béla Tarr and Youssef Chahine, as well as Hansen-Løve herself in getting her first film Tout est pardonné (2007) off the ground. The inevitable question arising after such a tragedy is, simply, why? Perhaps with emotional distance it could be explained more logically as a product of Balsan’s financial and personal failures, but while Hansen-Løve’s film is inspired by these events and records such details it does not seek to arrive at any conclusions; instead her film is clearly a very personal reaction to the tragedy, seeking not to adhere to cold hard facts and the quantifiable but instead exploring the its themes and the emotional responses of those closest to him.
In the film Balsen is replaced with the analogous figure of Grégoire Canvel, who from the outset is portrayed as hardly a saintly figure. We are shown a man welded to his mobile phone, utterly engrossed in the wheelings and dealings for his various film projects, but to the apparent cost of those around him. Continuing to natter away even whilst dangerously negotiating narrow Paris streets in his car – at one stage even wielding two phones, Malcolm Tucker style – he is eventually, and not for the first time, hauled over and reprimanded by the police. Spending the weekend with his family at a countryside retreat, his wife despairs at the amount of time he spends away from them; all the while, we are presented with a measured, believably flawed character rather a simplistic Hollywood Bad-Dad: he is a good humoured, loving father to his three girls, even though when with them he still appears uncontrollably to be keeping one eye on his work telephone.
If his personal life is not in an ideal state, then neither is that of his production company, Moon Productions, owing millions in unpaid lab fees and interest on bank loans, manned with a loyal but disgruntled and overworked staff, and with its main creative project – an arthouse film by a renowned ‘difficult’ Swedish director – decidedly hitting the skids and not looking like recouping its spiralling production costs. Grégoire’s insistence on focusing on artistic merit rather than marketability is evidently praiseworthy, yet his continued damn-the-torpedoes attitude seems informed by a combination of Panglossian optimism and extreme denial, his head firmly buried in the sand in the face of the tides of debt washing over him.
Grégoire’s life is far from perfect, but then neither is it massively troubled, at least in melodramatic terms. So far too, the tone has been light and breezy, filled with moments of humour and observations of the small everyday joys of bringing up young children. The soundtrack, largely filled with upbeat, jaunty Jonathan Richman numbers, has thusfar been light and frivolous, hardly foretelling any darkness to come. So when, at almost exactly the film’s halfway point, the anticipated moment comes – suddenly, with little warning, even less fanfare and taking place in a single brief shot utterly devoid of glamour – the audience is in shock as much as his screen family at the relative disparity between his dramatic action and the relative inconsequentiality of his problems.
This point bisects the story into two clear halves, the latter refocusing the story to examine primarily the effect of his death on his wife Sylvia and eldest daughter Clémence. Inevitably the initial emotion after Grégoire’s death is one of intense grief, but the in its aftermath the narrative proceeds to take a series of unusual ellipses – we see no funeral and very little of the immediate aftermath – and instead the focus is placed on the longer-term: Sylvia resolves to finish the outstanding work at Moon Productions, seeing it as a fitting tribute to his memory, while Clémence begins to shadow her father’s former footsteps: visiting the same coffee houses and cinemas, taking an interest in the side of him she was never to know.
Given the film’s tragic subject matter, the emphasis on the family’s longer-term coming to terms with Grégoire’s death rather than their immediate sorrow prevents it from feeling emotionally didactic, certainly in comparison to the expectation that this will be a much more straightforwardly grief-sodden film. The focus is on dealing with mortality rather than transcending it, and by downplaying the dramatics of the situation, the film is allowed to explore much more complex and subtle emotional responses to death, owing a little to the latter half of Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru (1952). In particular Clémence, something of a disaffected and peripheral figure in the film’s first half, suddenly comes into her own, learning about how her father lived his life, the passions he had and the flaws which he kept hidden; in doing so we see her change from a bored adolescent to the beginnings of a confident young woman.
In a film which is so clearly divided into two, it is inevitable to compare the differences in the halves. The score noticeably takes a turn towards the melancholy, though the use of Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera over the end credits suggests a the film is intended to be taken positively: Hansen-Løve is not suggesting a carefree, Mersault-like indifference to death but neither a triumph over it either – it is simply a fact existence and life must of course go on afterwards. Ultimately, then, this is a film about life rather than death, and by removing many of the expected melodramatic elements, the film touches on a realism, albeit a bourgeois one, more in keeping with the everyday than the hard-edged Bressonian poetic-tragedies of the Dardennes.
There are two brief moments of non-narrative exception, almost as if the film is taking a pause for breath. In the first half, the family embarks on a holiday to Italy, and while there one of the daughters swims in a secluded rock pool, immersing her head in the milky water before coming up for air again. In the second half, a power-cut plunges the family home into darkness, and they light candles and head out into the darkened street to see if the neighbours are similarly afflicted. In both instances time seems to stop; for their non-sequitur positioning within what is otherwise a fast-paced narrative, their presence suggests a kind-of poetry, a capturing of those unexpected moments of beauty which touch the sublime, and for which life must surely be worth living.
The film marks a watershed for director Hansen-Løve, a work of great maturity from this young writer/director of only one previous feature. The confident, subtle use of ellipsis to powerful effect only begins to slip into tell-tale youthful indiscretion in the film’s latter half where a sequence of narrative-advancing coincidences feels a little too fortuitous, but this is forgiveable when there is so much elsewhere to admire: a rich, controlled mise-en-scene, and a delicate script where small details accumulate slowly to take on greater significance. Above all, it is in the naturalism of the performances that she manages to elicit, in particular those of the young daughters, whose vibrant personalities importantly breathe sheer joie de vivre into the story, making the puzzle of their father’s death ever more poignant.
The title of the film, Father of My Children, seems initially to be viewed from the perspective of Sylvia, and yet she is by and large a passive figure for much of the story, at least one who hardly deserves to be the focus of the title. Perhaps it is to be taken less literally? In reality, Humbert Balsan was a kind-of ‘father’ to Hansen-Løve‘s first film, and in this capacity enabled her to become the filmmaker she is today. His passion for cinema encouraged and nurtured many another young filmmaker’s career, making him the father of many cinematic offspring, of which this beautiful picture is just one.