The Father of My Children (Le Père de Mes Enfants)

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
France/Germany, 2009, 112mins, rated 12A
Screening: The Renoir, 6 March 2010

In my February review of Lucrecia Martel’s tense and engrossing The Headless Woman, I not only praised it for its unique cinematic style, but expounded on the importance of art cinema and those film-makers who are dedicated to exploring film’s complexities in order to really communicate with us. Who’d have thought then that within a matter of weeks I’d be seeing a film that’s not only another perfect example of effective art cinema, but one that embodies the very principles I was extolling and actually summarises, explores and, in its own peculiar way, celebrates the exact point I was trying to make (albeit in a much clearer and more beautiful way)…

The Father of My Children is a simple and quietly engaging film about European art cinema and the passion of the people behind it. It follows the charming Grégoire Canvel (played by the wonderfully named Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), an independent film producer based in Paris. Grégoire is a blizzard of activity, dashing between the frenetic dealings of his company, Moon films, and his country house where he spends his weekends with his wife and three daughters. Passionate and dedicated to the integrity of the films his company produces, Grégoire flies from meeting to meeting, reading scripts, meeting DPs, visiting shoots to calm volatile lead actors, dodging accountants and bank managers and placating the poor put-upon women at his office – all the while jabbering into one of several mobile phones and incessantly chain smoking.

From the outset, it looks like Grégoire has it all: a perfect job working with and encouraging creative individuals, a vivacious, loving family and caring friends and colleagues. But maybe energy and belief isn’t enough to be a success in today’s money-obsessed world. On a night drive back out to his country house, Grégoire is stopped by the police for speeding and, with a run of prior tickets, has his licence revoked. This moment of wing-clipping by The Man sets off a chain reaction that begins to erode Grégoire’s confidence, threatens his company and piles so much pressure on his shoulders that he’s forced – in an moment of madness – to make a terrible decision that will deeply affect all those around him.

The Father of My Children is proudly, almost defiantly French. The title sequence alone – bustling Paris street scenes overlaid with slightly wobbly (in that nicely pre-digital, handmade way) titles – evokes any number of classic French movies from the 50s to the 70s. Naturalistic in style, the film focuses solidly on character and allows the performances to carry the story and create the tensions. Indeed, what shines through most is the depth and power of the acting. Most film-makers can only dream of coaxing the level of authenticity from their cast that director Mia Hansen-Løve does in this film – especially from the younger actors. It’s all the more impressive when you consider Hansen-Løve was only 28 when she made the film.

While Louis-Do de Lencquesaing is the centre of the action: all rugged, chain-smoking Parisian charm and brooding Gaelic complexities, it’s actually the trio of actresses playing his daughters who steal the show. The interaction between these girls and their on-screen father is quite simply stunning. The two younger girls seem so genuine on screen and show such a deep love of their father that it’s hard to believe it’s artifice. Conversely, the palpable tension between the older daughter Clémence and her father is all the more touching when you learn that the young actress is in fact Louis-Do de Lencquesaing real-life daughter Alice. In the final third of the film, it’s young Alice’s performance – and the fascinating character she builds – that really holds the film together. I expect – and hope – we’ll see a lot more of this actress in the future.

Louis-Do de Lencquesaing with Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss

What sets The Father of My Children apart as a successful piece of film art is its gentle dovetailing of content and form. As a film about films, it’s both a celebration of their power and a paean to the sacrifices of the people behind them. Inspired by the life and tragic demise of acclaimed French film producer Humbert Balsan, The Father of My Children shows us the pain behind the screen of European cinema. This is not the cinema of profit – as personified by the petty back-biting and money-grabbing of Hollywood – but a cinema of people and passion; a cinema of life, expression, emotion and communication.

Twice in the film Grégoire takes his family into a church and talks with passion about what each one represents. The first is a ruined Templar church near to their country house, the second the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Italy, visited on a rare family holiday. As Grégoire tries to instil the plight of the Knights Templar and the martyred St. Apollinaris into his young daughters, the allegory is clear: for Grégoire, producing films is more than a job, it’s a personal crusade. By creating a platform for artists to work, by discovering, coaxing, and bringing together writers, directors and performers, Grégoire is sacrificing himself to the cinema. And for all its trials, he deeply loves what he does and the body of work he has helped create. Even in the eye of the storm, as funding is being cut simultaneously from a number of his projects, he still takes time to invite a young screenwriter into his office and encourages his work. Recommending the life of independent film-making to the young man, he explains its draw, and reveals his philosophy: ‘you answer to no-one, you’re free’.

Infused with a deep, unwavering passion, The Father of My Children is Mia Hansen-Løve’s love letter to the cinema and the films – and film-makers – who inspired her (before moving into film-making, she spent time writing for France’s influential film criticism magazine Cahiers de Cinéma). As the film’s narrative shifts towards Grégoire’s daughter Clémence in the final act of the film, it’s clear – through the inquisitive, first-person style – that the character represents Hansen-Løve herself, and that the relationship to her on-screen father is analogous to those film-makers she grew up watching (her metaphorical parents) and the films that helped her grow (their metaphorical children). When a film as simple, as subtle and as beautiful as this comes along, it makes you wonder: why can’t they all be this good?

1 comment:

  1. Lovely - what appealing and agreeable prose you have. A Løve-letter to the movies, indeed.


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