Father Of My Children

Father Of My Children

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

When the movie industry turns its cameras inwards, it’s often to focus on actors or directors as the archetypal ‘tortured souls’; constantly suffering (and usually making others suffer too) for their art. Hansen-Love’s beautifully-observed second feature, winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes festival, provides a welcome corrective. It focuses on the people who actually get the money and resources to ensure films are made in the first place – producers.

Producers are traditionally depicted, in Hollywood movies like Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife and Vincente Minnelli’s sublime The Bad And The Beautiful, as either boorish money-men or manipulative reptiles. Gregoire (de Lencquesaing) couldn’t be more different – firmly located in the arthouse/indie sector his life is a constant battle to reconcile art and commerce, juggling the contrasting demands of bankers and distributors keen to see a return on their investment and directors constantly requesting more time and money to find the perfect shot or ideal location.


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The opening scenes, as he walks and drives around Paris with a mobile glued to his ear, keeping half-a-dozen balls in the air simultaneously, create a vivid picture of life in the world of shoestring-budget European cinema. Even when he reaches his country house to join his devoted wife Sylvia (Caselli) and three young daughters, the world he’s created for himself never quite goes away. But he’s obviously devoted to intelligent, alternative cinema and his life, though chaotic, seems in many ways enviable – a loving family, an apartment in town to go with the country house and a job which offers variety and fulfilment. As the film progresses, however, the writer/director subtly illustrates just how tenuous Gregoire’s – and by implication, anyone’s – grip on the controls of life really is.

The problems continue to pile up and his confident assurances to creditors, employees and his wife that there will always be solutions to them begins to sound less like a Master of the Universe defying the odds and more like a modern-day Mr Micawber’s groundless confidence that ‘something will turn up’. Eventually even this is eroded away, and his face and demeanour visibly change as despair begins to spread like a cancer, one which even the moments of pleasure he gleans from his wife’s love and that of his carefree, precociously bright children can’t alleviate.

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One can imagine how an American telling of such a story would ladle on the sentiment and engineer a happy ending, and a British version would probably be unable to resist staging a more dramatic conflict between Gregoire and his family – especially since the film makes clear that the company’s difficulties aren’t the only thing he’s been hiding from them. But Hansen-Love (a former actress and Cahiers du Cinema writer, whose friendship with the producer Humbert Balsan inspired the film) prefers to make her points through gesture and nuance and the film is all the better for it. Drama – likwise tragedy – doesn’t always need capital letters and the gradual opening of an unbridgeable void between Gregoire and his happiness is all the more affecting for being understated.

She also makes clear that the consequences of his actions rebound on his family and will continue to do so beyond the film’s wordless, poignant final scenes. In the end, it’s clear, they have the harder task. It’s beautifully filmed, expertly paced and edited, with a believable, witty script that nails the myriad aggravations of film-making (and film-makers) with an insider’s acuity. But all this would be rendered pointless if the actors couldn’t make you care about their characters. And here Hansen-Love really has produced a five-card trick.

As played by de Lencquesaing pere, Gregoire is a fascinating combination of artist manqué and hard-headed entrepreneur, able to charm and bamboozle the financiers who’ve heard his spiel umpteen times before, yet still passionate about unknown or uncommercial directors, and about art and culture in general. The scenes when he takes advantage of rare family trips to impart knowledge of architecture or history to his children convey the air of a man who uses words and knowledge as a healing drug. Caselli is equally impressive as a pillar of solid, but often exasperated and far from uncritical, devotion, and the three child actors are simply superb. Alice de Lencquesaing (the leading man’s real-life daughter) is Clémence, a teenager growing to realise her parents’ problems and her father’s many faults, and displaying a very believable mixture of vulnerability and wisdom beyond her years. Gautie and Driss as her younger siblings are equally convincing, their perky cheeriness giving way to puzzled worry and finally heartfelt sorrow as they struggle to understand what’s making Daddy so sad.

In the wrong hands, this could have been simply an upmarket soap, or a love-letter to ‘us bloody marvellous movie people’. Instead it makes clear that the film business has as many good, bad and indifferent characters as any other – and that it is a business, where artistic integrity counts for little against figures on a balance sheet, even in a country famously supportive of its cineastes.

Hansen-Love doesn’t always keep a tight enough grip on the many strands of her story, and the ending leaves several questions unanswered. But this fits in with the film’s dominant theme. Ultimately it’s about the futility of trying to tie up all the loose ends of your life, the battle to deal with the ‘thousand natural shocks’ that the world can throw at you and still retain a proper perspective and appreciation of how good the world can be. As Gregoire’s story poignantly makes clear, it’s a battle that’s not always won.

Reviewed on: 16 Jan 2010
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A French producer struggles to balance completing his roster of films with the demands of his young family.
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