Friday, May 21, 2010

Le père de mes enfants: IFC Center, starts May 28, 2010

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."


Brian Darr said...

Skipped this at the festival contra your recommendation, but finally caught up with it last night and knew I had to come to read your review.

I admire your ability to handle the spoiler-aspects of the film. I wonder how I would have reacted to the film if I hadn't first gleaned crucial details about its subject matter from other writings, not only because of the Psycho-level spoiler, but because thoughts of the film everyone says was particularly financially devastating to Balsam hung like a cloud over much of the film. And Hansen-Løve's style and world view seem about as diametrically opposed to that of the film I'm alluding to as there is room for within the world of European feature filmmaking at the arthouse level.

Though I wasn't won over immediately (perhaps because of the kind of fanfare you speak of) it wasn't before the end of the first reel that I was completely hooked in both by the story and by the director's observational approach, which feed off of each other (which is to say, it's hard to imagine this story working with another approach). I loved the film, for just the kinds of moments you describe, and for many others. I particularly loved the way that Alice de Lencquesaing would, while shot in profile or near-profile, turn the irises of her eyes all the way toward the camera, which stood in place for something or someone she didn't want to face, but did want to look at.

A small piece of the film that I found a fascinating sidenote was the use of footage from one of Darien Omirbaev's relatively recent films as a stand-in for the first film by a Central Asian auteur Grégoire had championed. Clémence's insistence on the (not so) fictional film's perfection in spite of the fictional director's protestations was a warm and poignant moment.

One very minor quibble: "Que Sera Sera" is not the first famous song in the film. I'm not talking about the haunting Lee Hazelwood number playing at the party Malkavian takes us to (I don't think I'd ever heard it before but I'll be asking my Hazelwood-loving housemate about it as soon as I see him), but a beautifully eclectic instrumental arrangement of "What Child is This" for guitar that accompanies one of the driving scenes (I regret that I have already forgotten which one). Otherwise, a stellar review!

Dan Sallitt said...

Brian - the Central Asian auteur was played by Jamshed Usmonov, a director from Tajikistan whom I admire. I liked that scene with Alice de Lencquiesaing and Usmonov too - I can't think offhand of another film that shows cinephilia as a psychological byproduct, which of course is not at all hard to spot in real life.

Never realized that Stig Janson might be inspired by Béla Tarr. It's typical of Hansen-Løve to give Larson justifications and dignity, when it would have been easy to color the entire characterization with Larson's narrative function as a threat.

Brian Darr said...

Dan, thanks for the info on Usmonov; I don't believe I've seen any films from Tajikistan yet. I can't think of another film looking at the psychological underpinning of the cinephile impulse either.

Tarr was who I'd been told to expect represented in the film beforehand, though after viewing I learned that another model may have been the Lars von Trier of Manderlay. As you say, Janson is his own character apart from either model, if either were indeed a model.

Brian Darr said...

Dan, thanks for the info on Usmonov; I don't believe I've seen any films from Tajikistan yet. I can't think of another film looking at the psychological underpinning of the cinephile impulse either.

Tarr was who I'd been told to expect represented in the film beforehand, though after viewing I learned that another model may have been the Lars von Trier of Manderlay. As you say, Janson is his own character apart from either model, if either were indeed a model.

Michał Oleszczyk said...

Wonderful review. I watched the movie earlier today and loved it (I carefully avoided spoilers, so the suicide shocked me appropriately).

Even though the theme of suicide is introduced much earlier (Gregoire makes a jocular suggestion that maybe jumping off the window could solve his problems), his seeming mellowness precludes all suspicion of possible violence on his part.

Some of the metaphores that Hansen-Love injected too close to the surface of main action bothered me slightly, though. I particularly mean the ominous and overtly meaningful titles of movies that Gregoire once produced or is about to produce, which make their appearences mainly as the posters decorating his office. "Heritage", "The Trip is the Destination", "Jackpot", "Family Perchance" (the latter is even quipped upon in a dialogue) -- all seemed to me a hair too heavy-handed intrusions of the author's commentary on the world she created.

This is a minor complaint, though, and doesn't diminish my enthusiasm for the film. As far as the abruptness of the main hero's mid-movie death goes, only PSYCHO and TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA are in the same category.

Dan Sallitt said...

Michał - it never occurred to me that the film titles could be comments on the film's themes! I can't help but wonder if a film like this, which deals with so many aspects of life, might not lend itself to a thematic connection with a great many film titles.

Michał Oleszczyk said...

Dan - The way camera lingered on some of them, and the way Hansen-Love composed her shots so that the titles are not only perfectly readable, but often feature in the frame as a clear-cut background for the characters' actions, I couldn't help but ascribe meaning to them. What's more, FAMILY PERCHANCE becomes a subject of an in-joke between two characters at one point.

I may be reading too much into this, but I think it's significant that Hansen-Love chose to invent roughly 10-15 titles to grant "Moon Films" on-screen credibility, and I think the choices she made weren't entirely disconnected from the themes *she* was working with in THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN.

the light of the white page hurts my eyes. said...

hey dan: have you thought of mia hansen-løve's work in comparison with sandrine veysset, a young, french, female auteur that humbert balsan championed?

the natural, unforced, utterly alive work with children is something that unites them, to me; and, beyond that, there's the way that they quietly observe these minor moments of life and let them add up to something major. and, of course, the notions of families in flux, spirits held together.

just vague thoughts at the moment... which you may entertain as you see fit.

Dan Sallitt said...

The only Veysset film I've seen is the 2006 Il Sera une fois... Somehow I didn't take to it: it didn't really make sense to me either in terms of the characters or as an allegory; and it had a grim, portentous tone that wore on me a bit. Did I pick the wrong entry point?