He doesn’t look depressed. In The Father of My Children, Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) plays an eternally harried producer of high-toned, difficult art films—kind of like this one. When Father opens, Canvel’s little Paris-based company is funding a film by a visionary Swedish director running well over budget, and he’s on the road to financial apocalypse. But even as his world crumbles, Canvel’s demeanor remains laid-back, soft-spoken, collected, sometimes even friendly and bright. When his mental health finally takes a nosedive, the shift is so sudden, though it’s the subtlest of facial shifts, that it’s as shocking as any horror-film “boo!” moment.
It helps that his departure arrives a lot earlier than expected. Father is loosely based on the life of Humbert Balsan, who ushered into existence films by Lars von Trier (Manderlay), Claire Denis (The Intruder) and Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention) and killed himself in 2005. It’s a tragic tale, but director Mia Hansen-Løve (All Is Forgiven) remains strikingly dispassionate. Her camera calmly watches the world of art-film production, as busy and chaotic as the megastudios but with the added stress of caring, often hubristically, about quality over commerce.
Even when the focus shifts from Canvel to his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and three daughters—two too young to understand, the other (de Lencquesaing’s real-life daughter Alice) old enough to tumble into despair—the film remains stubbornly unsentimental. When Sylvia receives word of Canvel’s fate, she’s shot from a distance, face obscured, denying us (and Caselli) a big show-off Oscar clip (regardless, Caselli’s work, while low-key, is excellent).
Grief is borderline impossible to portray on film, and Hansen-Løve is wise to focus on the tactile—the loose ends, red tape and unleashed secrets—that surface in the wake of tragedy. It’s little surprise she’s dating Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Summer Hours): both Frenchpersons are aces at calm, alert observation. She isn’t as prone to nutty larks as her beau, but with her second feature she’s already proven herself a master of experimental structures—like the Psycho-esque one here—and the complex mix of emotions that serves as Father’s capper. Watch this space.