Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve has negotiated familial trauma in her two films by splitting the action into "before" and "after" — the first half of each story building to a crisis, the second laying the foundations for what she often refers to as reconstruction. Although spasms of violence interrupt the opening hour of All Is Forgiven (2007), and a catastrophic decision bifurcates The Father of My Children, which opens here on May 21, Hansen-Løve sustains an evenness of tone as her characters search for clarity and illumination.
Bourgeois in setting, both films depict the effect complex men have on their wives and children. In All Is Forgiven (co-written by Clementine Schaeffer), a failed writer and addict abuses and abandons his spouse for his junkie girlfriend, whose O.D. causes his crack-up; cleaned up 11 years later, he attempts a reconciliation with his teen daughter. The Father of My Children follows independent film producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) — a cultured, urbane 40-something who dotes on his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), moody teen daughter, Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing), and two delightful younger girls. A backer of creatively bold, uncommercial projects, perpetually glued to his cell phone (to Sylvia's chagrin), Grégoire is the kind of maverick who can juggle a French-Korean co-production and an overbudget film by a Lars Von Trier–like troublemaker, while encouraging a young first-time writer.
The inspiration for the character was Humbert Balsan (1954-2005). A protégé of Robert Bresson's, he was the beautiful Gawain in Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac (1974) and acted in more than 20 films. By 1978, he was producing his own projects. The highly prolific Balsan supported filmmakers as diverse as Claire Denis, Youssef Chahine, Elia Suleiman, Béla Tarr, Merchant-Ivory and Von Trier, becoming renowned as a champion of Arab cinema and women directors. After knowing Hansen-Løve for a year, he was planning to produce her first film, when he died.
"I wanted to show this heroic side of him," Hansen- Løve says. "There was a kind of wholeness about him: a need for art, a need for cinema. His comprehension of it was quite rare."
In The Father of My Children, Grégoire's "need for cinema" proves to be his Achilles' heel. He has borrowed recklessly from the banks, and his boutique company faces bankruptcy. Outwardly calm, he signals his anguish when he takes an unscheduled nap in the office. Later he tells Sylvia he can't take any more.
"I wanted to emphasize the contrast in this particular person between his radiance, his energy, with this melancholy," the 29-year-old Hansen-Løve says. "The idea of showing a person who, on the surface, doesn't appear melancholy but has it within him interests me — it was true of the father in All Is Forgiven, too."
As Grégoire tries to rescue his company, he finds that his main bank is no longer willing to help. "I wanted to show the cruelty of the world of cinema and the cruelty of the world in general," Hansen-Løve says. "There's a tendency in the French film industry to complain that money isn't being invested, but if you look at it from the banks' point of view, it's not really their role to perform this function in society. Grégoire borrowed and borrowed until the banks wouldn't give him more money. It's hard to blame them because they're being logical."
Suddenly, Grégoire is no longer there. "What made me want to make this film was not what happened to him," Hansen-Løve explains, "but showing how life organizes itself once a person is gone. The wife rolls up her sleeves and gets on with liquidating the company with as much dignity as possible."
Meanwhile, Clémence seeks Grégoire's son from a previous relationship, and begins to show signs that she has inherited her father's passion for cinema. (She's movingly played by Alice de Lencquesaing, Louis-Do's daughter, whose grieving granddaughter similarly came to the fore at the end of Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours.)
"Clémence has this within her, but she has to take this path to reconstruct herself. She connects with the young screenwriter and becomes attached to the title of his film, Une famille par hasard — 'a family by chance.' She's creating for herself a family that's more spiritual than a blood family."
When asked why her films meditate on sundered fathers and daughters, Hansen-Løve says, "Perhaps it's a way of killing the father for me. It's paradoxical because these are films where it's important to love the father but at the same to mourn him. I had a grandfather who committed suicide, which really haunted the family. I think the absence of my grandfather, who had six children and [who himself] experienced bankruptcy, was brought up again by the death of Humbert Balsan, but I don't know."
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The daughter of philosophy teachers, Hansen-Løve acted in Assayas' Late August, Early September (1998) and Les destinées sentimentales (2000), experiences that prompted her to become a director. After two years at the Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris, she dropped out to write for Cahiers du cinéma. "I felt that would be a good route to learn, not necessarily filmmaking but mostly writing with greater clarification and precision, because for me what is important in cinema is the writing."
She and Assayas later became a couple, and now have a baby daughter. If Assayas has influenced her professionally, it has been to make her independent, she says. She prefers to talk about the influence of Bresson and Eric Rohmer, "who've haunted me over the years. With Bresson, what's most important is the quality of transcendence in his films, though I myself am not religious. What affected me the most about Rohmer was his clarity and the simplicity he brought to questions that are infinite."
Toward the end of The Father of My Children, a power outtage leaves Sylvia, her daughters and a producer friend in the dark. They light candles and head outside. "The scene has a sense almost of communion, because they are finding themselves, paradoxically, in this obscurity, and they're very present at that moment," Hansen-Løve explains. "I think this scene is potent because they have the opportunity to look up and see the starry sky, which reminds me of the starry skies painted by the American artist [Vija] Celmins. The idea was to show they were going back to the essential."
Her next film will trace "over the course of seven years, the life of a young woman who has never come to terms with the loss of her first love, but it also deals with how she reconstructs herself." Is this one autobiographical? Hansen-Løve, who has been speaking French through a translator, breaks into English for the only time. "I don't want to answer this question," she says with a nervous laugh. "I cannot."