Reviews

Le père de mes enfants

Mia Hansen-Løve

France, 2009

Credits

Review by Mike D’Angelo

Posted on 23 September 2009

Source IFC Films 35mm print

Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

Last year, based on recommendations by a number of trusted friends, I sat down to watch All Is Forgiven, the debut feature by French actress Mia Hansen-Løve. After 40 minutes of what struck me as fairly banal junkie melodrama, I turned off the DVD and reported my disappointment, whereupon the trusted friends objected that I’d given up on the film – which is structured as a diptych, jumping forward 11 years for its second half – right when it becomes truly interesting. Now, having seen Hansen-Løve’s sophomore effort in its remarkable entirety, I suspect that they were right. Father of My Children, too, functions as a diptych, of which I found precisely one half to be absolutely superb. This time, however, the awesomeness was frontloaded rather than (apparently) backloaded, which meant that I survived all the way to the closing credits.

Very loosely based on the circumstances (to put it coyly) of producer Humbert Balsan, who most recently shepherded such idiosyncratic films as Claire Denis’ The Intruder and Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, Father of My Children plunges into film-biz minutiae with such whirligig intensity that it deftly avoids the lightly smug, “behind the scenes” nudging that makes most movies about moviemaking such a trial. The Balsan character, here called Grégoire, stays in constant motion, shark-like, contending with the varied problems arising from several different projects in completely different states of production. He’s also acutely aware that his company’s financial situation is fast approaching total ruin. Thankfully, he manages to switch off all anxiety when in the company of his wife and two pre-teen daughters, with whom, between crises, Grégoire embarks on a pastoral vacation. Tender and playful, he seems to have been reborn; you can hardly even recognize him as the same man.

To reveal what happens next would probably constitute a spoiler, though anyone familiar with Balsan will know what’s coming (albeit perhaps not when it’s coming). Suffice it to say that the film’s second half shifts focus to the three female members of the family, for whom life has become considerably less carefree. And it’s here, I think, that Father of My Children loses its way a bit, even though Hansen-Løve’s alert, observational style doesn’t radically alter. In theory, the film’s two halves should bear roughly equal weight; in practice, part two feels more like a prolonged postscript or coda, like watching water slowly drain from a dirty tub. Without the near-constant sense of urgency, juxtaposed with blissful interludes, that informs Grégoire’s story, Hansen-Løve’s attention to detail and deliberate lack of inflection starts to feel somewhat labored, to the point where you may wonder why the film hasn’t yet ended.

Still, its overall structure is commendably bold—I felt a real sense of excitement at the midpoint, when the event I’d expected would be the film’s downbeat climax took me by surprise, leaving me pleasantly baffled about just what I was watching. And while I saw little evidence of it in those first two reels of All Is Forgiven, Hansen-Løve’s formal chops are unmistakable here; her nifty balance of restlessness and repose is particularly impressive. (She’s romantically involved with Olivier Assayas, and I intend nothing but high praise when I say that the first half of Father of My Children plays like Summer Hours meets Irma Vep.) While I’m still not quite on board with the trusted friends who consider her the Next Big Thing in European arthouse fare, I’m now looking eagerly forward to whatever comes next—and you can be certain that even if it doesn’t seem instantly magnificent, I’ll stick with it to the end.

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