By Marty Mulrooney
It is not a very well kept secret that I am a huge fan of all things French cinema. My interest started on the somewhat lighter end of the scale with an early appreciation of Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element), before blossoming in my later years into an active appreciation of directors such as Olivier Marchal (36 Quai des Orfèvres) and Guillaume Canet (Tell No One). Le père de mes enfants is my latest foray into this wonderful country’s cinematic output. Released over here in the UK as Father Of My Children, this is the film that rewrites the rulebook on how to deal with loss, tragedy and hope on the big screen.
*Warning: Due to the nature of this film, spoilers are inevitable within AMO’s review. However, knowing the central revelations of the plot prior to viewing will in all likelihood do little to lesson its emotional impact: this is a film more about reactions to events than the actual events themselves. Indeed, some press materials outright disclose these plot points, whereas the trailer somewhat wisely chooses to keep them hidden. Therefore, only you dear reader can decide whether to read this review before seeing the film! Please note: whatever you decide, I highly recommend seeing it regardless.*
It comes as no surprise that Father Of My Children won the Special Jury Prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. This is a film of two halves: the first half a beautifully endearing, warts and all take on family life, the second a subtly astonishing portrayal of a family brought to its knees by an unexpected, sudden loss and their struggles with the resultant devastation that follows in its wake.
Our introduction to film producer Grégoire Canvel, played with such warmth by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, is rather telling: for the majority of the opening moments he is shown on various mobile phones, smoking and driving whilst constantly talking shop. From within his office on wheels he never once pauses to concentrate on the road and seasoned western cinemagoers such as myself will understandably be waiting for a shock-impact car crash moment to occur. Yet it never does, with Grégoire instead simply getting stopped for speeding. The audience collectively breathes a sigh of relief… but we shouldn’t. This is a character fatefully doomed by his passions.
That Grégoire’s family do not even blink at the fact that they now have to pick him up from the police station immediately speaks volumes about their relationship without the need for clumsy exposition. He jokes and fluffs over the incident as always, in total denial about his life. His wife and children are just as endearing as he is, genuinely loving and successfully working as a whole without having to sit there and explicitly say ‘I love you’ over and over again like much British and American drama schlock would have you believe is commonplace in a close-knit family home. Yet things in the background are undeniably amiss.
Chiara Caselli as Grégoire’s wife plays down her role and is all the more impactful for it. She is obviously in many ways unhappy, but this is always balanced against the life she lives. She resides in a beautiful home, with three beautiful children. When her husband speaks of his worries that she will leave him amidst financial difficulties, she dismisses them immediately. She is in love.
She may not like his bad points, including rising debts and an unhealthy obsession with his profession, but she accepts them because there are also still wonderful glimmers of the man she loves emerging at every turn. He is a father who can tell his children of the Knight’s Templar at a nearby ruin with passion, capable of conveying such incredible imagery and wonderment with his words alone. You believe he is so endeared by his family because you feel it too, swept up in the fairytale-like appeal of it all.
Which makes it all the more shocking and impactful when Grégoire suddenly takes a gun and shoots himself in the head, paralleling real life French film producer Humbert Balsan. There is no goodbye note, no heartfelt farewell to his children. One moment, we are sharing their illusion of a father who is on top of the world, the next dealing with the sudden realisation that he was so unhappy and so in debt that he saw no option other than to, in a moment of depression-induced self-loathing and madness, end it all with a bullet.
This is where the true heart of the film lies, with the main plot dealing with Grégoire’s death and how his family copes. It is also one of the most powerful portrayals of how fleeting life truly is that I have ever seen: none of us are here forever. Yet Grégoire’s ghost echoes throughout the film, haunting us and his family. Understandably, his death has immediate and huge repercussions. His two youngest daughters are devastated but recover quickly, still growing and perhaps most pliable to sudden change. Elsewhere, his wife remains loyal to the end, hoping to sort out his financial woes rather than simply declare bankruptcy, even though it is a guaranteed lost battle. Yet it his eldest daughter, Clémence, that is left reeling most of all. It is a wise decision to focus on her personal journey as the film draws to its close.
Played so beautifully it will make your heart ache, actor Alice de Lencquesaing’s character is the highlight of the film and a worthy successor to Grégoire as its heart and sole. She tries desperately to understand her father and come to terms with his death via the typical Hollywood clichés. Which makes it all the more impressive when these moments are simply left empty, turned on their heads, polarised. Her realisation that Grégoire had a son with another woman, likely to be used as a major plot device in lesser dramas, is left in the past as it should be. It doesn’t matter anymore. Likewise, her attempts to love the cinema Grégoire produced, even going as far as to sleep with a young scriptwriter he fleetingly knew, are dealt with like a waking dream. They are dealt with, they don’t work and then we move on. Life moves on and we fill it with whatever we can to get through another day. Clémence will come to terms with her Father’s death just like her younger sisters will: yet it will take her longer, because perhaps she shares some of Grégoire’s desperation as well as his charm. These moments are not about the man he was; they are about the woman she will become.
Truly, the most amazing thing about this film is that it conveys a real sense of warmth, even in its darker moments. Effectively, it is a film about suicide, yet to label it as such would be to force it into a box where it doesn’t truly belong. This isn’t film drama as we typically know it: this is real life personified on screen, harrowing loss shown with authenticity and taste. There are no blatant moments of supposedly Oscar-worthy onscreen weeping at the news of Grégoire’s death. Clémence doesn’t fall in love with the young screenwriter and find that she has a new rock in her life to depend on. The film starts brightly, then starts again (for real this time, with Grégoire’s death causing the lights to dim) and then it ends and the lights go out. Life goes on.
Some viewers probably won’t get it at all: the music and opening scenes promise a film lighter in tone than what we ultimately end up with. Yet without the second half, I feel that the opening wouldn’t have resonated nearly as strong. This is a drama that doesn’t fall trap to clichés and conventions. Much of the film is there for the taking, but it will never be forced upon you. It will stick with you and it may even make you take a look at your own family and loved ones afterwards too. The most poignant film I have seen in years, Father Of My Children isn’t perfect, yet it remains shockingly watchable and tells its story without ever becoming obvious or desperate.
Director Mia Hansen-Løve has shown much promise: there is so much said here without it actually being said at all. It reaches us on an emotional level. She wisely lets the the characters, situations and emotions assault the viewer gently, clumsy exposition be damned, so that you don’t know whether to gently laugh or cry come the ending. And, as Que Sera Sera washes over us during the credits, Clémence’s reluctant tears still fresh in our minds, this contradiction of emotions couldn’t be stronger. Impactful and beautiful.
8 OUT OF 10
Father Of My Children is due for DVD release on the 21st June 2010.