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Films by women, French Cinema, German Cinema, Melodrama

Le père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children, France/Germany 2009)

Grégoire and Clémence (Louis-Do and Alice de Lencquesaing) photo © Carole Bethuel

I had mixed feelings when this film began, possibly because I knew that it had received 5 star reviews and was generally being hyped. I found the first half hour quite difficult to watch, partly because of the shooting style – a mobile camera following characters in a busy office etc. I also found the central character got on my nerves as he chain-smoked and spoke on his mobile continuously, even as he drove out of Paris.

What I didn’t know (or had forgotten) was that this character, Grégoire, is based on the legendary film producer Humbert Balsan. The film is actually a fictional biopic and the director, Mia Hansen-Løve, was herself produced by Balsan as a first-time director. I realise that I could never have worked in the film industry as I don’t have the personality for it – or perhaps it is my antipathy towards the French bourgeoisie. However, I know that many of the filmmakers I admire and respect were very difficult to work with and to love. I also accept that you can’t help the class that you are born into and it’s what you do that matters. Yet, when it comes to fictional characters, my reactions tend to be different. Grégoire is taken by everybody to be warm and charming – even while he is overworking and running his film production company into the ground. I did actually find the representation of the production process to be fascinating and it did seem authentic, but I just didn’t warm to Grégoire – I preferred his sensible friend, Serge (who later is described by a ‘difficult’ director as somebody who “doesn’t like cinema” – ouch!). The point here, I think is that sensible producers who know how to handle egos and accountants are the ones who keep filmmakers in work. Clearly the film constructs Grégoire as a loving father and an inspiration for his colleagues in the production company and auteur filmmakers from around the world.

Grégoire is married to Sylvia and they have three daughters, the eldest, Clémence is played by the daughter of the actor who plays Grégoire. Sylvia and the three girls are delightful (precocious, but not irritating) and for me it was a relief when Grégoire leaves the scene and they have to pick up the pieces (this is not the intended response, I’m sure!). In its second two-thirds when the focus shifts first partly and then completely onto the four female characters, the pace and the tone of the film changed and it became one of those magical films in which little happens but each moment is charged with emotional possibilities as Sylvia tries to save the production company and Clémence delves into her father’s past at the same time as she explores a relationship for herself, presumably for the first time. Some critics see the possible move into melodrama as a weakness. For me, it’s a strength. The director uses the strength of melodrama conventions in a creative way.

I was never bored for a moment in the film and as the film progressed I thought that it developed into something very fine. It is a realist melodrama and the ‘excess’ of emotion is released in a quite startling use of non-diegetic music. Mia Hansen-Løve was only 27-28 when she made the film so I’m intrigued as to how she chose (or at least agreed) the tracks – ‘Egyptian Reggae’ (1977) by Jonathan Richman during the opening movement through Paris, ‘Johnny Remember Me’ (1961) the great Joe Meek-produced track by John Leyton played very loud when Clémence goes to a party with her boyfriend and a Lee Hazlewood track when she chills out afterwards in a stunningly-observed scene. The film has a score but the use of these pop songs – played loud and high up in the mix is certainly excessive. I was completely taken aback by ‘Johnny Remember Me’, partly because it seemed culturally out of place (although it may well have been a hit in France in the 1960s) but also because it appeared first to be diegetic (i.e. music in the party) but then extended over the events following the party.

Nick commented that one of the interesting aspects of the film was the way in which it left narrative strands dangling without full resolutions. There are lots of characters and nothing is spelt out. Some narratives are also developed very quickly without the use of conventional sequences. So, for instance, the family talk about going on holiday to Ravenna and we see them in a basilica studying a famous mosaic. But we don’t see them travelling or meeting Italians. Only if you know the mosaic (I had to look it up) can you be sure that you know where they are. This extends to the location of Gregoire’s country house and its location (close to a river or lake and a chapel built by the Knights Templar). I’ve no idea which part of France we are in – although presumably not that far from Paris. My point is that this is not a mainstream film and it takes few prisoners. I’m not sure how it will go down with audiences or what kinds of responses it will get. Certainly all the rave reviews seem to be from critics who know French film and French culture well. But I think I have to accept that mine is possibly a response out of step with all the other reviews I’ve read. A clue to this is Mia Hansen-Løve’s thanks to Olivier Assayas, whose film Summer Hours evoked a similar response from me (and which is where, I realise now, I first saw Alice de Lencquesaing). I liked Le père de mes enfants much more, but in both films there is something about French bourgeois life that I find off-putting.

An interview with the film’s producer David Thion is included in this review. I’d like to finish by just emphasising how much I enjoyed having the economics of small French production companies represented in such detail. Yes, this film has a lot going for it and I must find a way to use it.

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