REVIEW: Father of My Children Brims With Daring and Confidence
A bisected portrait of two families -- one small and thriving, one sprawling and dysfunctional -- both headed by the same, charming man, The Father of My Children examines the shipwreck of suicide and the grief of those left stranded in its wake. Writer and director Mia Hansen-Løve based the character of Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) on French independent film producer Humbert Balsan, with whom she was briefly acquainted before he committed suicide in 2005. A champion of her first film, All Is Forgiven, the paradox Balsan's death presented -- how could one so artistically vital and outwardly charismatic succumb to self-destruction? -- inspired the 29-year-old director's second, remarkable effort.
The Father of My Children is neither a sentimental tribute nor a dreary existential exercise. Hansen-Løve's greatest achievement here may be in the film's sui generis structure: She sets up the terms as she goes with quiet authority, and even those that don't wholly convince (the suicide scene itself; a subplot involving a secret family) don't disrupt the film's intricate and involving progression. Grégoire divides his time between the neverending chaos of the production office he runs and his almost unbearably idyllic domestic life, where he indulges his two burbling, hyper-narrative young daughters and handles with kid gloves his more sullen eldest, Clémence (played by the actor's actual daughter, Alice de Lencquesaing). Grégoire is himself coddled by his inadequately drawn wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), who either shrugs off his infinitely divided attentions or makes a crisis of them, depending on her mood.
Business is bad at Moon Films: Over-committed and in serious debt, Grégoire is at the helm of an imminent disaster, and yet among the myriad of crisis-management calls made to his banker, his lender, and his lawyer is one placed to a young filmmaker, a new talent he can't help but recruit. His enthusiasm during their call -- made in a stairwell, away from the disapproving ears of his already frantic staff -- is the key to Grégoire's success and his downfall: He's a true believer, not a money man.
Which is not to say he doesn't live well: Clearly he had done something right, and for a long time. Hansen-Løve doesn't stint on the trappings of a privileged Parisian's life: There is the country home, the trip to Italy, the really sweet bespoke suits. It all speaks to a genuine appetite for life, one that is pointedly contrasted with that of Clémence, who, it is reported by her two younger sisters, eats nothing and sits alone in her room all day. Grégoire diagnoses her problems as more metaphysical than his, before urging her to "decide to be happy." And yet it is Clémence, we soon learn, who is better equipped for life's catastrophes; it is the more introverted, less impulsive but equally sensitive daughter who comes into focus as at least as compelling a character as her father is.
Because Grégoire is more of an advocate than an artist, it would seem to be a circumstantial panic that leads to his suicide, which arrives with a terse and truly awful thud about halfway through the film. In leaving almost an hour for the aftermath, Hansen-Løve intends to bring the full force of his absence to bear, but the narrative problems surrounding the act itself linger. Perhaps the brain-scrambling senselessness of the act is part of her point (can we ever understand the motivations?), but if Grégoire's act has bewildered his family ("I think it was a moment of madness," Sylvia decides) it is also not well understood by the audience, who at least had the advantage of watching him, enveloped by a rising cloud of cigarette smoke, as though he were actually on fire, during his final hours.
A filmmaker who relies chiefly on imagistic lyricism and observed, often idiosyncratic behavior to assemble the bones of her story, Hansen-Løve has a daring and confidence one might not immediately associate with such a meticulously crafted and boringly titled film. Her camera is attentive and watchful, following her characters at a respectful but distinctly interested distance; it's a technique that creates a solid bond with a series of highly enigmatic characters without compromising their mystery. She pauses often but never without purpose to showcase small, private moments of grace, or pleasure: In one scene a grieving Clémence grows flustered while ordering a coffee, then switches to hot chocolate; the camera rests on her face as it settles, then slowly grows alert with some new idea.
Hansen-Løve's gifts for mood and eliciting controlled, empathetic performances are well-suited to her sensitive material, and ultimately overshadow the film's difficult and uneven central characterization. We wind up, after all, fully embedded in the experience of those left behind, a family whose slow and virtually uneventful recovery actually charts the arrival of the haunting and yet strangely comforting certainty that there are no certainties, only moments -- some more consequential than others, all equally deserving of scrutiny. If the future, as Doris Day croons over the credits, is not ours to see -- its mysteries rivaled only by those of the past -- the best bet may be to simply stay present.