To start, a confession. I arrived late to the noon screening of this film. It was Sunday, shenanigans had transpired the night before, and I misgauged the moving through space and time and procurement of restorative foodstuffs and iced coffee. In fairness and with all love to the IFFB organizers, screenings at the Somerville could be counted on to start a titch late, and then with the requisite intro and showing of the sponsorship clips, well, you have a little wiggle room.
But The Father of My Children was at the Brattle, and I should have known they'd get off to a crisp start. It was my first screening there this festival, and I was hoping to recapture some of the sense of Gallic wonderment that found me floating out of the theatre after seeing Summer Hours there the year before. [This is when I should say that I learned only yesterday that Hours director Assayas and Children director Mia Hansen-Løve are a couple. Which makes sense to me, given how I felt at times while watching this film about a French producer of not-so profitable art films.]
Still, the conditions of my first encounter with the film's titular father were strangely apt; Gregoire Canvel [Louis-Do de Lencquesaing] conducts his life in medias res. When I slipped into my seat in the darkness, he was already in his car, juggling multiple mobiles and a cigarette as he sped toward the wife and daughters awaiting him at their country house. One encounter with the gendarmerie, car impoundment, and rescue by his family later, he gets there. Only Gregoire isn't especially present. He's able to sit through younger daughters Valentine and Billie's charming theatrical performance for their parents and older sister, but it's a rare occurrence. There's always another distraction, another fire to put out in the office or on location pulling him away.
He's not much better with his colleagues at work. The scenes and characters set at Moon Films brim with the benign chaos that greeted a bemused Maggie Chung in Assayas's own 1996 film-about-filmmaking, Irma Vep [Indeed, lanky Hansen-Løve appears briefly at that film's epic dinner party, grooving to Luna's cover of "Bonnie and Clyde."] As in that earlier film, the women here on the whole are of a much more practical bent, and despite disasters, insane directors, and demanding visitors somehow films get made.
But let's not even get into the state of Moon Films' financials. Gregoire certainly won't, insisting on hanging on to the rights to his mortgaged many times over film library and picking up the check at business luncheons. He takes his family on holiday to his wife Sylvia's native Italy but cannot honor his promise to stay off his phones. It's becoming increasingly clear that the center will not hold. At least not for much longer. But it's more how and when Gregoire spins off his axis that sets The Father of My Children apart.
SPOILER ALERT. Sylvia does not walk away from her husband, as the movie seems to intimate she might after their unsuccessful trip. Instead, Gregoire, in a manner that shocks because it's so abrupt, commits suicide. We see it but find it as hard to believe and to process as those who did not. His younger daughters tearfully wonder why he did not love them enough; the eldest, Clémence [the magnificent Alice de Lencquesaing], seeks answers in the films her father chose to produce and with the young screenwriter, Arthur, he turned away. Sylvia sets about winding down Moon's affairs in as respectable a manner as she can manage.
Life does not stop when Gregoire did, or when Moon will, which is what makes the aftermath that takes up the second half of The Father of My Children so engrossing and so truthful. He is so vivid in the first half of the film, and so not present in the contents of desk drawers and sometimes strained relationships he leaves behind. It is a situation and a phenomenon I have witnessed more than once in life but never before on film. Never like this. It is in every sense a moving picture. The story squares its shoulders and gets on with things. What else can one do but go forward?