Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review - The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants)

At the start of Mia Hansen-Løve's heartbreaking film The Father of My Children, Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a man in a constant state of motion. He talks incessantly into the mobile that is permanently glued to his ear, trying to solve the myriad problems that a man in his position has to face every single day. Grégoire is a film producer whose company has hit a financial wall. Their debts are steadily mounting with no sign of respite, a situation exacerbated by a temperamental Swedish filmmaker whose mercurial methods on a behind-schedule shoot are costing €20,000 a day ("He's a genius," Grégoire says in the director's defence). The producer tries to remain optimistic and positive in the face of seemingly hopeless odds, but he is a drowning man, and as the film progresses he gradually begins to realise it.

Only with his family can Grégoire attempt to leave behind the pressures of his profession. The pleasure of spending time with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and three daughters does much to relieve the burden on his shoulders, but the realities of work still creep in to his home life. During a family holiday, Sylvia loses patience with his habit of constantly disappearing to make phone calls, and de Lencquesaing's superb performance charts the alterations in his character's outlook in subtle, compelling ways. Everything that happens in the first half of The Father of My Children feels honest and organic. Mia Hansen-Løve allows us to spend plenty of time in the company of the Canvel family, enjoying the warm and loving relationships they share with one another. The director's style is quietly impressive in its ability to place us right in the middle of Grégoire's two worlds and make them feel so immediately authentic. This is a deeply personal story for Hansen-Løve, who has based it closely on the life of a former mentor, and perhaps that's why the story's emotional undercurrents are so potent; she really makes us care about Grégoire and his family, and therefore the plot developments she sets in motion halfway through the film are both shocking and deeply affecting.

Choosing to place such a large and significant twist at the centre of your film is a bold move. It's one that could easily rupture and unbalance the picture, but Hansen-Løve handles it with remarkable grace, shifting the focus of the narrative with ease and drawing us into a film that is suddenly a very different experience to the one we were originally watching. The director shows herself to be equally adept at handling the fresh emotions that this second half of the picture throws up, as well as the probing questions that it asks of its characters and audience, and so many scenes here are handled with a delicacy and insight that moved me to tears. Part of the reason the familial relationships are so believable is because one of Grégoire's daughters, Clémence, is played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing's real-life daughter Alice. I had already taken note of this young actress in Olivier Assayas' exceptional Summer Hours, and here she proves herself capable of carrying a great deal of dramatic weight. Clémence has to cope with an increasingly responsible role within the family, as well as facing startling revelations about her father, and her performance as a teenager on the cusp of womanhood who is not quite ready for the world that lies ahead is a marvel; just watch for the beautifully observed scene in which she tentatively orders a coffee.

Tellingly, the last line in the film is "We don't have time". The Father of My Children is very much a film about having enough time; enough time to find a balance between your work and personal life, and to ensure that you can enjoy the happy domesticity that you have spent so long trying to attain. Beyond that, however, the film is a perceptive study of grief, and of the psychological pressures that financial instability can bring about, making it feel like a picture keyed-in to the world we're currently living in. But ultimately, and I think most powerfully, Mia Hansen-Løve's The Father of My Children is a film about love; the kind of love that can bind a family together in times of crisis, and allow them to look forward with defiance and resolution at whatever the uncertain future is going to throw at them. Que Sera, Sera.