Children, conceived in an instant of passion, are often (and tragically) the most intimate witnesses to the death of the love that spawned them. Belgian writer-director Geoffrey Enthoven’s Children of Love explores the fallout of divorce on three lives that are just beginning. This domestic horror film follows the complicated custody arrangements that twice-divorced Nathalie (Nathalie Stas) makes with the fathers of her three children over the course of a single weekend. Mournful nine-year-old Winnie shuffles off unwillingly to visit her angry dad, Olivier (Olivier Ythier), with her brother Michel, age 12, who idolizes him. Their five-year-old stepsister, Aurelie—still blissfully unaware of life’s grim complications—embraces her father, Renaud, (Jean-Louis Leclercq) in a parking lot. While the men’s mixed efforts at part-time fatherhood unfold over dinner in restaurants, suddenly single Mom enjoys a bar crawl with some girlfriends.
If only parenting were a job that required a license and qualifications. Hopelessly mired in their own bitterness and self-delusions, how can these adults possibly guide their children? The kids do their best to look past the deceptions their parents proffer to the love beneath them—but the effort is obviously wearing.
Enthoven developed this, his first feature, from a documentary project that faltered when the families refused to cooperate. The results are chillingly naturalistic. Many who have known the failure of coupledom will recognize the angry gestures—the pursed lips, the car doors heedlessly slammed, the cordon sanitaire suddenly drawn around private life—that go with the territory. Occasionally the strength of his script outweighs his direction, making certain performances appear forced. In general, though, the film’s striking realism makes you feel you’re gaping at a car wreck. The canniest moments come when the camera turns to the parents of these separated partners, revealing more than any of them know. Social convention, Enthoven suggests indirectly, was among the most powerful forces keeping their marriages together. With the loosening of those strictures, their children’s narcissism rages uncontrollably, doing untold damage to the future generation.