Mia Hansen-Løve is a director to watch. Patient and understated, her dark new film The Father of My Children exhibits a hard, unflinching eye as both a writer and a director. Yet, within her grim vision, there is room for hope and humor. It’s a structurally complex story, with a schism in the script that divides the lives of a family into before and after. But the temptation to call it a film in two movements belittles the ways in which it is seamlessly pulled together into a single entity.
Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), protagonist of the first half, is a film producer — loosely based on the great French producer Humbert Balsan — whose company has taken on too many projects and too many debts. He’s portrayed in the opening scenes moving through the streets of Paris, trying to get from his office to the countryside to meet up with his family. He rifles through a series of humorously rapid phone calls with directors, assistants, and producers, a simple act that succinctly defines his character. You get the sense that he never stops working or that he’s never allowed to stop. While this half of the film is lighter than the second, serving as a love letter of sorts to the cinema, it takes a turn when the pressure and the imminent collapse of his company lead Grégoire to kill himself in the streets of Paris.
While Lencquesaing is fantastic as Grégoire — charming, suave, a little mysterious — he doesn’t compare to the brilliant performances in the second half of the film, courtesy of Chiara Caselli as Sylvia, Grégoire’s wife, and Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing), their oldest daughter. The second act follows these women as they try to understand what has happened to Grégoire and pick up the pieces of both their lives and the company he has left behind.
Thankfully, Hansen-Løve avoids the kind of exposition that is a staple in American films with drama this heavy, allowing the characters to simply live their lives in order to show us their strength. Sylvia is forced into taking over the production company, with the goal of finishing the final projects that were important to Grégoire before she closes shop. A steep learning curve ensues, and she is thrown into the uphill battle between financiers and directors while supporting her three daughters. Her tribulations are many, but she is a resilient character, like few in recent memory.
Clémence, too, exhibits the subtleties that make this half of the film so powerful. She has doubts about her father’s goodness after his suicide and discovers that he had a son with another woman. She explores this new life, these revelations, by spending time alone in the city, starting to date, and attending retrospectives of her father’s films. Hansen-Løve imbues these scenes with a beautiful stillness that sets them apart aesthetically from the rest of the film — as though Clémence has escaped and is allowed to step into a vacuum. Like the rest of the film, Clémence takes large, emotional events and turns them into internal, beautiful moments of subtlety.
The Father of My Children is a remarkable achievement for Hansen-Løve. There are few films that are so reserved yet can still say so much.