“Take care of all my children, don’t let ’em wander and roam. Take care of all of my children for I don’t know when I’m coming back home” – Tom Waits
A film most decidedly split in two, Father of My Children brings us a life story of a family. Its initial focus is on Grégoire Canvel, a film producer, and his indefatigable efforts in making sure that his films see the light of day. This part alone would be worth the price of the rental, but the change of tact at the midway point propels this French movie into a different stratosphere.
When we first meet Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) he is talking on the phone. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the producer because this is what he does. He has two phones, and they’re always ringing. He has an office, and staff, but we realize that the majority of his filing is done in his head; decisions are made without rational thought, just an artistic desire to get his productions released. Currently he has three films on the go: one, ‘Saturn’, is hemorrhaging 20,000 Euros a day thanks to a mad Swedish perfectionist of a producer. It is money that Grégoire cannot afford. Everyone he knows, he owes. Bringing decent movies to the screen is neither cheap nor easy.
He has a wife, an Italian named Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), and this is the second marriage for both. There are three kids in the house, the eldest being Clémence at around sixteen. Clémence, incidentally, is played by Alice de Lencquesaing, real-life daughter of Louis-Do. The other two, Valentine and Billie, are much younger. Theirs is a tight family unit; Daddy is constantly busy (watch how he’s scolded by the youngsters as they tell him to turn his mobile phone off before they’ll present him with their latest home-made play) but love is holding them all together.
Grégoire’s production company, Blue Moon Films, continues to suffer financially and we sense that he’s suffering too. Interestingly, we rarely if ever see this suffering; Grégoire hides it from his family as a dutiful father should, but Father of My Children‘s writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve also chooses to only subtly show his strain to us, too. Because the pain is implied rather than overtly stated, we sense that there’s hope on the horizon. The producer is forced to ride the bus to his office one day which allows him time to read a script by an unknown writer. He commits to producing it and our hopes rise higher; perhaps serendipity has struck and this script will be the movie to clear his financial woes which now threaten his entire company and, we sense, his raison d’àªtre.
We’re by now engrossed in a vibrant — at least, by French standards — movie that fairly bustles along, mirroring the work ethic of its protagonist. At the film’s midway point, however, everything changes in ways I shall not reveal. After this incident — and you’ll know it when you see it — it dawns on us that this movie’s title is paramount. It is not, after all, the story of a film producer battling to save his company but instead the role that a father has to the rest of his family. Lines that seemed throwaway in the first half now strike us as terribly important, and the pressures of producing pale in comparison to the importance of being the head of the family. The focus changes completely; Grégoire is no longer the central character but instead we center on Sylvia and Clémence, each of whom has different challenges to face.
The tempo of Father of My Children changes, also. The gravitas of the incident applies the brakes to what was previously a nippy production and we move into character study territory. The first half, the happy half if you like, opened with the playful refrain from Jonathan Richman, ‘Egyptian Reggae’, but the sanguine second half is punctuated with John Leyton’s morbid ‘Johnny Remember Me’. By the time the end credits roll, Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera, Sera’ fits the bill perfectly. I was caught completely unaware by the mood change, and I was disconcerted. Upon later reflection it is easier to see Hansen-Løve’s intention and it’s a fine, if sobering one. The predictions I made to myself in part one did not materialize, and my initial response was disappointment. This, of course, was totally my fault; preconceived notions of how a film should or should not pan out are not the fault of anyone else but me.
Father of My Children is an excellent life-tale that moralizes with good intention, and for that I’m grateful. With strong performances all round, and a director confident in her ability to take viewers in directions they never expected, it should be applauded. Keep an eye out for the name Mia Hansen-Løve: I have a feeling we’ll be hearing lots more from her over the years.