On screen and real life father and daughter, Louis-Do and Alice de Lencquesaing in The Father of My Children
As The Father of My Children begins, we see Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) walking around Paris, wielding a couple of cell phones in a constant relay of conversations. He has the sleekly-dressed and slightly unctuous tone of a film producer. Little wonder then that we find out he is indeed a producer, head of the struggling Moon Films. A call about housing a Korean film crew gives way to an update from the set of Swedish auteur Stig Janson (Magne Brekke, looking and acting a bit like the lovechild of Klaus Kinski) who's way over budget, which gives way to a call to his family waiting patiently (they have had practice, obviously) at their country house.
So, is our Gregoire some sort of fast-talking schmuck? A terrible father? Is it a troubled family? Is it an idyllic one (scenes of Gregoire cavorting with his little girls do have a glimmering, giggling perfection about them; the middle daughter Valentine speaks at times with a wit and delivery worthy of a no-nonsense screwball comedienne; and the family Canvel don't seem to have five pounds of body fat amongst them)? Is some predictable drama about to occur? None of the above, really.
We are catching Gregoire at a time when years of hard work, apparently a labor of love, are in jeopardy of being consumed by the studio's many debts. Moon owes the film lab about a million Euros, his back catalog of films is in hock and he's having trouble raising the money to continue productions in progress. So impractical is his love for film, that in the midst of these travails, he reads the script of a young man during a bus ride and summons him to Moon's chaotic offices so they can work together.
Gregoire handles the constant demands with remarkable aplomb, alternately and skillfully playing salesman, facilitator, cinema advocate and shrink. His charm and passion have taken him far, but he finally buckles beneath the impossibility of his financial situation and a descending sense of failure.
The suave Louis-Do de Lencqeusaing plays both the man's refulgence and his eventual eclipse with an easy credibility. It's not difficult to see why people in his professional and personal lives are won over by his charm. The notoriously difficult director Janson tells his wife that when faced with Gregoire, his anger would melt. The man is certainly a multi-tasker of the first order, with phones and cigarette in hand in the midst of driving or walking about, pulling away from his family even while on vacation to field clamant calls. But when his family does get his attention, particularly his youngest daughters Valentine and Billie, he's practically a dream of a warm, playful and honest father.
As the collapse of Moon Films seems imminent, Gregoire drives a short distance from the studio offices, gets out of his car, grabbing a few papers and a pistol from the glove box. We see him set those papers alight over a grate in the street and wait until he's satisfied that they have been destroyed. He then walks out of the frame, we hear a shot and then the camera is briefly on him a final time as his body slumps to the sidewalk. A minimum of build-up and then just the act itself, with no tell-tale spread of winedark blood on the concrete.
Killing off a interesting, charming central character only half-way through a story is a fairly bold narrative move. It's not a development you're likely to find in an American film; or at least a script with such an about face is one not likely to find financing on this side of the Atlantic. But as the very literal title indicates, this is a third person narrative, not a first.
It is in the second half that we see much more of the oldest daughter, Clemence (Alice de Lencquesaing). She was quite good as Charles Berling's alternately rebellious and sensitive daughter in Olivier Assayas Summer Hours. She's even better here, her performance even more affectingly raw without resorting to histrionics. It probably doesn't hurt that she's acting with her real-life father, but it's no guarantee of on-screen credibility.
As the oldest daughter, she understandably has the most questions about her father's life. It is she who discovers that Gregoire left a son behind, following up a gossipy conversation she is troubled to overhear in a bar by finding letters which substantiate the rumours. This would seem the moment for posthumous revelation and melodrama, when we find out the loving family man had the requisite dark secrets. But the son, as Clemence's mother explains to her, was the product of a relationhip which broke up before their marriage. Gregoire simply sent financial support to the mother who reciprocated with letters, updating Gregoire on the boy's progress, or lack thereof. In a typically impetuous teenage move, Clemence goes to the apartment of her father's son and former partner. We see her wide-eyed when a young man opens the door. In an atypical move for a family drama, the boy before Clemence is not her brother, the mother speaks well of Gregoire and suggests that this is perhaps not the time to meet her actual brother, as he is less than sanguine on the subject of his now doubly departed father. It goes no further.
There's a kind of filmic continuity in the brief, unresolved relationship Clemence has with a young cinephile. It's the same aspiring filmmaker whom her father had called to the office not long before his demise. Like so much that occurs in the aftermath of the suicide, there's no obvious plot cul-de-sac, no easy escape taken by writer or character. After an evening together, the two may have slept together -Clemence's discombobulation in a cafe the following morning would seem a hint in that direction - but all we see is the young woman writing friendly note in the boy's apartment the next morning. We don't know if they will see each other again.
The Father of my Children would seem to have no obvious points to make, just as our lives don't go out of their way to make statements easily discernible to any observer. But a love of film and perhaps the continuity provided by art does seem to linger here. Certainly, this has to be among the best films ever made about the amour fou which afflicts those who want to produce films for the sake of art over commerce.
The most enigmatic of the women Gregoire leaves behind is his wife, Sylvia. There's a consistent strength, something of the uber mother about her. Her very sharp features and lean figure seem as much the wages of loving as a product of diet. When she tries to console an upset Clemence, who says their father chose "the void" (among the melancholy teenagers of the world, it is perhaps only a French youth can say things like this without sounding completely ridiculous) over his family. When Syliva tells Clemence that her father is still alive in all of them, she should remember his radiance and be thankful for the time they had with him, these do not seem the sentiments of pained, deluded women groping for the nearest verbal palliative. They seem instead the conviction of an intelligent, deeply caring woman who spent years living with the flaws in a man and relationship because she was vibrantly aware of the good.
In the aftermath of her husband's suicide, as Sylvia tries to navigate the debts and problems Gregoire left behind, as she tries to complete his work, there's a shot of her riding in a cab, on her way to negotiate with the difficult Stig Janson. While the driver chatters on a bluetooth in front of her, Sylvia looks out the window at some obliviously lovely Swedish countryside and wipes tears from her eyes. She might be wondering how her life came to this, why her husband left her such a mess, or simply wishing he were there. Some clues have been deftly left behind, but the scene asks an intelligent viewer to fill in the blanks.
All of this might seem anticlimactic if not blatantly unplesant to audiences accustomed to happier and tidier resolution. But this is not exactly Time of the Wolf, a typical Michael Haneke funfest in which a family's patriarch is dispatched by a shotgun early on, leaving Isabelle Huppert and shaken clan to wander an indefinite post-apocalyptic France. No, it's not nearly that. It's not as if we're asked to be witness to some sort of post-suicide downward spiral on the part of the family Gregoire left behind.
We see the wife and three girls struggling in their way. There are tears, some anger, an occasional curling into the fetal position at particularly tough moments. But as the film ends - to the not-so-subtle accompaniment of "Que Sera Sera"; that minor soundtrack trespass would seemed to have been earned - they are still all smart, strong, attractive and essentially looking forward, the toughest decision facing them whether to continue to live in France or move to Italy, Syliva's homeland. There's mixed feelings, particularly on the part of Clemence, wiping away tears of her own as she looks out a car window at Paris buildings, presumably wondering when she might be back. But ain't life full of 'em, those mixed feelings.
Late in The Father of My Children, Syliva, Clemence, Valentine and Billie, along with family friend Serge are eating dinner. As they discuss the family's plans and how the departed Gregoire might feel about their leaving France, the lights go out. It would seem a moment for the mother and children to see a sign from beyond, or for the director to produce one. As candles were lit, I was certainly expecting something of a spectral nature, like the memorable scene in Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration in which a loved one, long deceased, emerges from the dark periphery of a candlelit room. But no one at this gathering betrays any fright or morbidity. Instead, they decide to blow out their candles and go out into the street to view the extent of the outtage, gaze up at the now more visible stars. They're slightly disappointed when the lights come back on. Clearly, these are not women who are afraid of the dark, be it of the literal or metaphysical variety
Speaking of the strength and wisdom of women, young and old, The Father of My Children is the third film written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love. She got her start acting in a couple of Assayas' earlier films. She's all of 29 years old. I can't help but compare this slice of modern French family life with one of its American contemporaries, Please Give. It's striking how much more brave and mature is Ms. Hansen-Love's film. Let's hope we're able to see more of her work in the future.