Le père de mes enfants

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Seeing “Le père de mes enfants” you would think that its writer-director, Mia Hansen-Løve, is in the last part of her career, that she has gone through the ups and downs of a long life, has made peace with it and is now able to contemplate the world with wisdom and understanding. And you would be totally wrong. Mia Hansen-Løve was only twenty-seven when she made this profound film.

She took her inspiration from two real-life models, Humbert Balsan, a brilliant film producer who took his life at the age of 51 when he realized he would go bankrupt, and Donna Balsan, his wife, who, for all her grief, did her utmost to save Ognon Pictures, her husband’s company, after his death. But mind you, this is no straight biopic. For instance, the names have been changed; Grégoire Canvel (the screen equivalent of Balsan) has three kids instead of two; the way he kills himself is different; Bela Tarr, the Hungarian director Balsan had trouble with at the time of his death, has become Stig Janson, a Swedish helmer; and so on… Even Mia Hansen-Løve herself, who is part of the story, is represented indirectly, by Arthur,a young film maker that Grégoire wants to produce but finally can’t ( a reference to “Tout est pardonné”, Hansen-Løve’s former film, whose production was taken over by Pelléas Films after Balsan’s suicide). Oddly enough, Arthur happens to be interpreted by Igor Hansen-Løve, Mia’s own brother. Sure, “Le père de mes enfants” is not the exact telling of the life of one of the most original producers of French cinema, but it is very close to reality and perhaps even closer than if it was a mere biopic, since what Mia Hansen-Løve tries to do is to capture the essence of a man’s soul, not only to piece facts together.

To achieve this end, the writer-director divides her story into two distinct parts. The first one presents Grégoire in his professional as well as in his family life, both tending to intermingle to the despair of Sylvia, Grégoire’s wife. The long opening sequence during which Grégoire uses his mobile phone whatever the place he is in is explicit in this respect. At his country house on the weekend, Grégoire is the loving father of three delightful daughters and Sylvia’s faithful companion. At his Paris office he is an industrious man, the enthusiastic, tireless, staunch defender of auteur filmmaking, whether French or foreign. But money troubles become more and more insistent, preventing him from indulging his passion serenely.

The documentary aspect is excellent: the account of the way the small production company works day after day is very realistic without being boring. But interesting as this part is, it would not be enough to make “Le père de mes enfants” something else but a good film. What makes it really outstanding is the second part in which Mia Hansen-Løve explores the consequences of Grégoire’s suicide on his nearest and dearest and on his collaborators. And she does it with a truly magic touch. She first very intelligently disposes of the set pieces of the discovery of the corpse and of the funeral. Instead, she directly cuts to the deep sorrow experienced by Grégoire’s wife and daughters, the feeling of unacceptable loss, of resentment against the deceased who abandoned them. Then she shows how the characters evolve, slowly coming to terms with the situation, gradually realizing that Grégoire’s life has been so rich, has brought them so much that he is now part of them, that what he accomplished in the artistic domain before committing suicide has not disappeared. They know now that his spirit will go on living, through his films, through the persons they have become thanks to him…

A sad story but which does not make you sad in the end, for Mia Hansen-Løve doesn’t take morbid delight in the evocation of death and the damages it causes. On the contrary, it is life she pays a tribute to when she films wonderful scenes of family life with or without Grégoire, often in a sunny atmosphere. In the end, we get the comforting feeling that arrogant Death finally admits defeat.

The actors, although practically unknown, are very convincing. Louis-Do de Lencqueseing is fascinatingly close to his model and to his natural charm. His own teenage daughter Alice de Lencquesaing, who plays Grégoire’s oldest daughter, is simply wonderful, displaying a wealth of unaffected beauty and hypersensitivity. Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss, who play her little sisters, are full of life, and Chiara Caselli, in the difficult role of Gregoire’s wife, rings true throughout.

Florent Dudognon, who reviewed “Tout est pardonné”, Hansen-Løve’s first feature on Evene on 30-7-2007, used the following terms to qualify the film: “touching, sensitive, sweet, unmarred by pop psychology crap, played with restraint”. I guess he will not change a word if he comments on “Le père de mes enfants”, a moving picture you must not miss on any account.
(First published on IMDb. com on 29-12-2009)

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