Sunday, 21 March 2010

'The Father of My Children' review: Film Un Certain Regard

This review may contain a SPOILER for those who don’t know the story on which this film is loosely based.

'The Father of My Children' is a new French drama by the promising young director Mia Hansen-Løve. The film won the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, which is (apparently) granted to "recognize young talent, and to encourage innovative and daring works by presenting one of the films with a grant to aid its distribution in France" (thank you Wikipedia). The film itself is loosely based on the life and tragic death by suicide of the producer Humbert Balsan, who, in his last years, struggled with depression and the threat of bankruptcy. Hansen- Løve was given her directoral break by Balsan and possibly due to this decides to tell his story at a respectful distance: all the specific details have been changed with this account being presented as completely fictional. Yet, to anyone who knows about Humbert Balsan, many figures and events from his life have obvious analogues here.

‘The Father of My Children’ is certainly an accomplished piece of work. The performance of Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Grégoire (the producer and titular father) is everything it must be. Afterall, it is said (more than once) within the film that his character is charming and charismatic, which he certainly manages to be. He is also warm and funny in the scenes with his children (the eldest of which is played superbly and with real intensity and intelligence by his real life daughter Alice), and this is perhaps the most crucial part of the film. But he is also equally adept at getting across the sense of depression and desperation crucial to understanding the character's eventual suicide.

However, the real stars of this film are the two actresses who play Grégoire’s two younger daughters, Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss. These girls are really natural on screen and provide some really great comic moments as well as helping to ensure the film accurately captures the atmosphere of a family at play. My favourite scene involved these two staging a play in the living room for their parents (in that way little children do) which really captures a sense of pure joy. The film gets things like this absolutely right. Another scene I loved sees the eldest daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing) ordering a coffee in a cafe, only to get embarrassed by all the choices and revert to hot chocolate. It was a wonderful moment that seemed familiar to me, and also said a lot about the character as a girl on the verge of being a gown-up with choices to make and coffee to drink.

The film also manages to tell a story that often goes untold in cinema: that of the sympathetic producer who cares deeply about cinema and wants to make films of artistic worth. Unlike many on screen money men, Grégoire is not brash or calculating and instead we are placed in the position of feeling that his directors, who fail to work to budgets and ultimately cause him to face bankruptcy, are exploitative and often unsympathetic characters.

The pivotal sequence that leads up to Grégoire’s suicide is truly inspired, with the event itself serving as the film’s most poignant image and as a memorable visual highlight, as we see him shoot himself whilst walking away from the camera. As he drops to the floor unceremoniously it is clear that there is nothing romanticised about the act, which is desperate and futile. It is also interesting as it builds to this moment at about the half-way point and then the film re-centres itself around Grégoire’s grieving loved ones. Prior to the suicide Grégoire’s wife promises not to leave him in the tough times ahead and I was choked by the realisation that he in fact leaves her. She is forced to deal with the inevitable bankruptcy he couldn’t bear to face himself as well as a future without a husband and father to her children. But although we are shown the void his death has left in their lives, we also glimpse, in another warm and funny scene of family bonding which involves a black-out, how he is really missing out on his life with them.

If I have a strong criticism of ‘The Father of My Children’ than it is directed at the films cheap sounding musical score which becomes prominent in the film’s second half and sounds like something from a terrible TV movie. The film, at almost two hours, is also a little overlong, with too many scenes involving the future of the bankrupt production company when the human drama is the real draw here. It is also true that Louis-Do de Lencquesaing is so successful at being charismatic as Grégoire that the film misses him just as much as his on-screen family do during the second half.

Overall though, the film was touching, warm and poignant with great attention to detail with regards to its portrayal of a happy family. Something which is too-often cheesy and cliché in the cinema (for some reason the opening of ‘Commando’ (five minutes in) comes to mind here). It also manages to get underneath the skin of an interesting set of characters and takes a mature and considered look at the roots of suicidal depression as well as its ultimate selfishness and futility, and without being judgemental. I recommend this film and eagerly await the next feature from Mia Hansen-Løve.

'The Father of My Children' can be seen at the Duke of York's in Brighton until Thursday and is rated '12A' by the BBFC. You can also currenly catch Jeff Bridges in 'Crazy Heart', which I intend to see tomorrow before going up to London for the premiere of 'Kick Ass'.

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