Depression, famously defined by Sigmund Freud, as “anger turned inwards”, is a tough subject to address for many filmmakers due to the difficulty in portraying such an internal conflict cinematically. Oftentimes, it is played for histrionics. At other occasions, the drama is reduced to pure mawkish tropes. Mia Hansen-Løve, a French filmmaker who has been garnering a lot of praise in cinematic circles for the last ten years, has devoted her entire career to telling low-key psychologically complex tales. For her sophomore feature, Father of My Children (2009), she turns her eye towards telling a family drama.
Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a film producer whose passion for cinema and keen eye at spotting talent is equaled only by his love for his family. He spends a majority of the story in transit: shuffling to his office, driving in his car, strolling around beautiful scenery and a dilapidated church with his family, or going from business meeting to business meeting. While typical family dramas might make the conflict between Grégoire and his attempts to balance family and work life. Hansen-Løve sidesteps this and introduces in the first section of the film the McGuffin plot: Can Grégoire save his production company from bankruptcy.
As passionate about cinema as Grégoire is he cannot ignore the dictates of the financial world, as such, requisite scenes of him negotiating with the bank and his accountant abound. Interspersed within this first section we are also privy to scenes of him with his family, a source of happiness and security for him. Not such a stretch since Louis-Do de Lencquesaing’s real-life daughter, Alice de Lencquesaing, plays his fictional daughter Clémence in the picture. And it is a breath of fresh of air to have a fictional family on film that is neither a dysfunctional unit or a Leave it to Beaver-esque parody of the nuclear family. Grégoire driving his car, as he juggles a stressful business conversation with a producer and a relaxed dialogue between his wife and children on his other phone is an indelible image in the picture.
He is such a strong presence in the film, thus the film’s title, Father of My Children, when tragedy strikes and Grégoire is gone his absence is felt. The country house that his family inhabit, the objects that he owned, and the locations that he toured with his family are revisited and Hansen-Løve evokes so much anguish and emotional pain by just cutting to a shot of a wooden ladder or an old letter Grégoire wrote. That we, the audience, know exactly what Grégoire’s family is going through.
The director has a talent for placing her camera at just the right spot and letting it roll as the action transforms before our eyes into a compelling scene, almost spontaneously. At times it can even seem like you are watching a very intimate documentary about a grieving family. Hansen-Løve even manages to not betray the audience’s intelligence by allowing us to infer how we should feel in each scene. Similar to Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda or Korean director Lee Yoon-ki, Hansen-Løve is a humanist and not concerned about making audiences empathize with a single protagonist and disliking the actions of a set antagonist. We learn a few things about Grégoire and spend time with his family, but the movie is not arrogant enough to actually answer the why of his despair, and by closure is, like life, nonexistent. This might not be considered exciting or compelling to certain film fans that have been raised on a steady diet of superhero films and The Fast and the Furious franchise, but I believe giving a film like Father of My Children a chance will go a long way in making these sincere narratives better appreciated.