I hesitate to proclaim Mia Hansen-Løve's Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children) the best film of the year so far, or Hansen-Løve as the strongest French director to emerge in the last decade: not because I have doubts, but because her films creep up gradually, and might be harmed by excessive fanfare. Still, publicity first.
Like Hansen-Løve's equally good first feature, 2007's Tout est pardonné (All Is Forgiven), Le père de mes enfants devotes its entire first half to a development that only in retrospect can be perceived as prologue. French film producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis de Lancquesaing), modeled after the late Humbert Balsam, is introduced via a comic device - as he wanders the streets of Paris and drives to his provincial home, Hansen-Løve cuts between his mobile phone conversations with a myriad of professional contacts - that synopsizes his character, creates expectations of forward narrative motion, and, along with soundtrack music, sets a light-hearted tone. Charming, intelligent, reasonably sincere, and seemingly impervious to chaos, Grégoire oversees three simultaneous productions while trying to stave off a financial crisis, the dimensions of which are only gradually revealed. His wife Sylvia (Chiari Caselli) and his three daughters inevitably must make do with the leftover scraps of his time. But Hansen-Løve characteristically mixes her signals here, sometimes showing Grégoire's bond to his family in a pleasing light, other times emphasizing the strain that his consuming work life places on Sylvia.
If you haven't seen the film, stop reading, as I'm about to spoil the entire plot. (Spoiler space follows.)
The flow of the story in the first half almost suggests a relaxed American comedy marking time before its second act breaks into hijinks or plunges us into drama. When it arrives, the story break is not a plot escalation, but a startling game-changer. In retrospect, we can see that we had been amply prepared. But the foreshadowing does not feel like prophecy, due to Hansen-Løve's taste for letting contradictory information pile up without authorial comment. Because she does not like to organize information about people into thematic shapes, she subtly undercuts the fiction's predictive power.
Facing bankruptcy, Grégoire shoots and kills himself on the street, right on the splice of one of Hansen-Løve's disarmingly casual cuts. Hansen-Løve's elisions deny us access to his deliberation or hesitation. Before the act, he burned some personal papers; we will never learn what they were.
Grégoire has been in every scene thus far: where does the film go now? As it happens, the film truly begins here. Deprived of its motive force, the unbound story line expands and diversifies until the keynote of Grégoire's struggle merges into the background noise of life. Sorrow and anguish dominate at first (one of Grégoire's young daughters is especially unnerving to watch, in that her raw pain is not aestheticized to match the grade of audience reaction); but Grégoire has left behind a raft of practical matters that must be attended to in haste. Sylvia steps into the breach, with the aid of Grégoire's friend Serge (Eric Elmosnino), to assess the dire financial situation and to decide the fate of the stranded productions, which Sylvia sees as Grégoire's legacy. All the pieces cannot be put back together again; but the family's effort to process its loss produces some good results as well.
Hansen-Løve's observational skills were apparent in the film's first half, but they are on center stage in its second half. She is a brilliant director of actors, specializing, not in big emotions that drive the fiction, but in coaxing out detail and ambience across large casts, and in selecting key moments that provide convincing randomness. A single example: Sylvia mentions to Serge, in front of her two youngest children, her desire to move back to her native Italy, observing that her middle daughter is dead set against the idea, but that the youngest might want to go. Asked for confirmation by Serge, the youngest wrinkles her face and says, "No, not really," with just enough diffidence to confirm the mother's judgment.
Unsurpassed as a director of children, Hansen-Løve takes a particular, and optimistic, interest in teenage female characters. In Tout est pardonné, the burden of carrying on in the face of loss fell lightly on the shoulders of a 17-year-old, played wonderfully by the non-professional Constance Rousseau; here, the focus of the family's renewal is Grégoire's oldest daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing). Working through an understandable anger at the problems that Grégoire has left behind, Clémence begins to sneak away from her family to pick up the scent of her father's passage through the world. Discovering a half-brother from one of Grégoire's prior affairs, she visits his home, without agenda; she starts watching her father's films in Paris theaters, showing signs of budding cinephilia; and she forms a possibly fleeting relationship with a young filmmaker (Igor Hansen-Løve) whom Grégoire had wanted to produce. None of these physical and mental peregrinations affects the story: Clémence is set in motion because she is of the age to be set in motion, and to transform her pain into self-discovery. The heart of the film is the plotless scene in which Clémence, having left a note and crept away from her first night with the still-sleeping filmmaker, sits alone by a window in a café, stumbling over her coffee order, then waiting and reflecting in the light of dawn.
It's a sign of Hansen-Løve's stature as an artist that she is as intrigued by the intricacies of Grégoire's film business as by the dynamics of his family. In a quiet but superb scene near film's end, Grégoire's heroic accountant (Antoine Mathieu) recounts for Sylvia and the stakeholders of the company the details of the financial apocalypse, with a rundown of what can and cannot be salvaged. As usual, the imperatives of fiction do not seem to have any bearing on the outcome: some of the projects that Sylvia and Hansen-Løve have devoted the most time to are unceremoniously pronounced dead; a few small achievements stand out among the general wreckage. Grègoire's children, having recovering their capacity for happiness, joke with the liquidator as they pay a final visit to the doomed production office on Faubourg-Saint-Denis, before a taxi whisks them away from the city that we have seen Grégoire pace out. On the taxi radio, we hear the first famous song used in the movie: Doris Day singing "Que Sera Sera."