The Father of My Children, a drama about love, sorrow, and the heartbreak of independent film financing, is sliced neatly in half by the sudden death of its protagonist, Gregoire Canvel. I’m not spoiling: Writer-director Mia Hansen-Love has admitted that Gregoire is based on the French producer Humbert Balsan, who killed himself in 2005 when his company sank into bankruptcy. Balsan had wanted to produce Hansen-Love’s fairly well-received 2007 feature debut All is Forgiven, which is about a daughter’s attempt to come to terms with her coke-addicted father. On the evidence of her work, it’s hard not to go all Freudian on Hansen-Love and infer that the 29-year-old has been deeply influenced by her father figures—the more scarred the better.
Born into aristocracy, Balsan was as colorful as you’d expect from someone who had minor acting roles in films by Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, and Sam Fuller before turning to production, where he championed Claire Denis and other women directors and became an avid promoter of Arab film. The movie certainly catches his restless spirit. We see Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) in perpetual, increasingly frantic motion, crossing streets, juggling phones, and trying to sweet-talk money-men into deals that will keep his strapped company afloat. All this while struggling to squeeze in a vacation at his discreetly luxurious country home with the family he adores—his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli, who has a face like Genevieve Bujold and the body of a well-tuned violin), and his three porcelain-pretty daughters.
That’s more than enough contempo-Gallic gracious living, but for once in the life of dandified French cinema, this is less about ennui or adultery in glamorous settings (there is a family secret, but it doesn’t add up to much) than about the process of work in an office full of dynamically committed people desperately doing their jobs, even as the whole house of cards threatens to collapse. Gregoire is seen frantically trying to keep the debtors away from his latest project, an avant-garde film by a wild-eyed Swedish director meant to evoke Lars von Trier, whose film Manderlay was produced by Balsan.
For the most part though, we’re asked to take Gregoire’s taste and charisma pretty much on trust. In part, that’s because de Lencquesaing plays him very close to his increasingly zombie-like chest, but it’s also because Hansen-Love takes a gods-and-monsters approach to Gregoire, begging us to decide whether he’s a genius indie talent-spotter bent on shielding art from filthy commerce, or a selfish rotter recklessly putting his family and colleagues at risk for the sake of his galloping ambition.
That’s a romantically oversize dichotomy, not to mention a heavy load to place on a man who may simply have been better suited to nursing talent than to making the trains run on time. Still, Hansen-Love’s fevered mix of love and resentment toward this man lends urgency and eros to his professional and personal unraveling. Which may be why, after she kills him off in a manner far more sensational than Balsan’s actual demise, The Father of My Children loses focus and sags into a how-we-got-through-it family procedural.
Don’t run away with the idea, though, that the movie’s title refers to Gregoire’s wife, a sturdy, yet oddly vaporous woman who’s reduced to a supportive helpmeet before his death and the widow bravely coping thereafter, with an acoustic version of “Greensleeves” playing behind her. The spotlight has shifted not to Sylvia but to the couple’s teenaged daughter, Clemence (Alice de Lencquesaing), whose grief and confusion are soon eclipsed by her attraction to a talented young screenwriter, and the growing clarity of her own future in the business that undid her father. If you can stomach the Oedipal flimflam (“Your father lives on in his work, and in us”) and Doris Day belting out “Que Sera” on the soundtrack, I’d call that a happy ending.