I couldn’t get to my aunt and uncle’s place on Long Island and to a movie theater yesterday, so my husband and I checked out the movies on demand on TV. There were lots of good options, including The Father of My Children, which I’d just added to my wanna-see list (it opened here on Friday). At just $6 for the two of us, seeing this one on TV wasn’t just convenient, it was a welcome break from the $12.50 or $13 apiece that you have to pay these days at most New York theaters.
What we saw was an elegantly made French film that pulled me in with deceptive ease. Like Things We Lost in the Fire, The Father of My Children is about a beautiful, happy family that seems unusually blessed until they lose their father and husband and have to learn to cope without him. But where Things We Lost in the Fire was off-puttingly histrionic, The Father of My Children is deeply affecting without ever being showy about its emotions.
It’s also the movie equivalent of a roman à clef for indie film lovers, a behind-the-scenes look at the difficulties of making and marketing arty movies studded with thinly disguised versions of real filmmakers. Even the father of the title, Grégoire Canvell (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), is based on a real person, a producer who was about to make writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s first movie when he died unexpectedly. Being able to play the inside-baseball game of guessing who’s who may add another layer of enjoyment for people who are into that kind of thing, but it’s hardly the main attraction. The Father of My Children is about everyday truths: the comfort and joy a happy family bestows on its members, the pain of losing a cherished parent or mate, how people cope with the death of a loved one, and the importance of accepting the worst and enjoying the best that life brings you.
Grégoire is a good-looking, vital young-middle-aged man with a lot to live for. Constantly on the move and on the phone, he’s working even when he’s supposed to be on vacation. He’s got a million little worries: a prickly Swedish prima donna who’s going way over budget, a celebrated Korean director and entourage who require the royal treatment, and a moody actor who’s giving his cheery director agitas. But one big worry overshadows all the others: the mountain of debt that threatens to crush his business.
Grégoire’s family is his only refuge, but what a refuge it is. His house is light-flooded and warm, open and welcoming. Talking to his adoring wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), playing with his three daughters, or taking his family to beautiful old places and telling them stories about what happened there, he drops his guard, sometimes looking almost like one of the kids.
The Paris of this beautifully photographed movie is the city of our collective imagination, full of light and effortlessly chic women with golden skin. Even Grégoire’s low-rent office is an object of desire, housed in a majestic old building with picturesquely flaking paint and spiral staircases.
By the time Grégoire dies, we feel the weight of his loss—not only his family’s sorrow at losing him, but our own sadness for all that he’s missing. Hansen-Løve could have ended there and had a good movie, but she’s just halfway through, and her story keeps going deeper.
Plenty happens next, including Sylvia’s struggles to keep the production company alive and the secret eldest daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing) uncovers, which her parents had been keeping from her. Clémence also has a brief affair with a young filmmaker her father was planning to produce, which may be, you sense, another way of keeping her father’s memory alive. These moments are all played out with the same understated naturalism as what came before, but we don’t need a lot of drama to understand their significance. It’s as if Hansen-Løve brought us far enough into the life of this family in the first half of the movie to let us see what comes next the way we see our own families, our antennae tuned to the most delicate of emotional vibrations.
Of course, a lot of the credit for this emotional immersion goes to the actors. I was particularly impressed by Alice de Lencquesaing, a young actress of great subtlety and range. Louis-Do de Lencquesaing’s daughter in real life, she also stood out in an excellent cast in Summer Hours.
The title of The Father of My Children is a little misleading. The story is told from the omniscient point of view, and it doesn’t focus any more on Sylvia than it does on Grégoire or Clémence. But the name does signal one of the most important things about this movie: It understands the importance of family life. Maybe it also helps direct our attention to Sylvia, whose graceful way of dealing with her children’s grief as well as her own as she tackles the business problems that defeated her husband is quietly heroic.
Self-controlled but suffused with feeling, The Father of My Children is a grownup love letter to life. By the time Doris Day’s “Que Sera” plays over the end credits, you’re primed to hang on every word.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.