Less an abrupt tonal shift than a logical continuation, the jolting narrative switch that occurs halfway through The Father of My Children nonetheless marks an essential split between a director confidently in charge of her material and a director in constant danger of losing direction. An hour into Mia Hansen-Løve’s film, the director fixes embattled film producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) in medium shot on a Parisian sidewalk. Drawing a pistol, he shoots himself in the head, and what had been an effective look at the unbearable pressures of the movie biz, its negative influence on family life, and one man’s downward spiral becomes something a lot more tentative and less intensely focused, even as Hansen-Løve smoothly directs the transition.
Constantly frazzled, despite his cool demeanor, Grégoire, at film’s beginning, heads a small movie production company that’s provided him with a comfortable lifestyle, but has lately become a losing concern. As he negotiates a Swedish production involving a talented, if intractable, director via phone, he visits a local set to meet with a frazzled actor and tries to figure out how to avoid having his assets frozen, the latter possibility the impending result of several million euros in debt. Following him throughout several days, the film’s skillful editing and staging conveys a feeling of ever tightening pressure, particularly in an early, masterfully fluid scene in Grégoire’s office in which he juggles a half dozen requests and updates from his staff with dismissive ease, his face all the while registering a resigned weariness. His only respite comes in the time spent with his family (his two younger daughters staging a play in which they lovingly parody their father, a trip to Italy with a stunning river bathing sequence), but even these are subject to the constant threat of an anxious thought or a ringing phone.
After Grégoire’s death, the film loosens its rigid grip and splits its focus. Turning attention to the efforts of the deceased’s wife and oldest, teenage daughter to come to terms with their loss, the director assiduously avoids the trap of easy sentiment, allowing the family only a few moments of teary-eyed moping. Instead she grants equal screen time to the widowed mother Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), trying to prevent her husband’s death from being completely “senseless” by attempting to salvage as much of his production company as possible and her daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing) overcoming the resentment she feels toward her father by digging into his secret past. The first storyline proves at least modestly successful (and contains a terrific scene in which Sylvia visits the Swedish director on set only to be told that her husband was a pain in the ass, but a passionate lover of cinema), but the second feels like a particular misstep. Crafting a far-fetched and somewhat inconclusive bit of melodrama to crystallize her character’s feelings, Hansen-Løve’s narrative invention seems like a contrived gesture, a break with the film’s carefully regulated naturalism and an unproductive disruption to an otherwise precise and subtly affecting piece of work.