Father of My Children explores the life of a workaholic filmmaker

The Father of My Children begins and ends with images of traffic set to breezy music notably “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)” playing over the credits. While the fatalistic tune and the twisting city streets are suggestive of the film’s exploration of uncontrollable circumstances and lives spent in perpetual motion its flippantly ironic tone in this context is incompatible with what happens between the credits.

Most of the story progresses in understated fashion from anxiety to despair to tragedy to recovery. Setting aside the occasional clash in tone French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s picture works with a realist esthetic — the film’s naturalistic dialogue and performances are filmed in a style that’s technically clean but intentionally unremarkable with almost no score. As a result of this stylistic choice the emotional highs are well-earned miniature eruptions couched in subtle nuance.

The story involves Gregoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) a mid-level film producer whose decidedly avant-garde company has been beset by financial problems and troubled productions so much so that he has little time to spend with his wife and daughters; he hides his mounting desperation when he does. While the film shifts protagonists within the family at least once it has a clear emotional bedrock; the protagonist is not filled by the first-person mother of the film’s title nor the father to whom it refers but by the children they share. Ostensibly supporting characters the three Canvel daughters are each played by a hugely talented young actress and together they lend their scenes complete emotional credibility. The daughters — Clemence Valentine and Billie — are the film’s greatest strength and ultimately the core of its narrative.

The moments spent with the family are more upbeat than expected as early scenes establishing Gregoire as a workaholic seem to predict domestic turmoil. The familial relationships are solid and loving if somewhat remote; the mother Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) calls for a long overdue vacation the adolescent daughter Clemence complains of being sheltered but these issues are minimized by Gregoire and the film. With living room skits and co-ordinated strolls through French historical sites the family almost seems to be performing as a happy unit perhaps as Gregoire’s longest-running production. The naturalistic style however leaves this point ambiguous.

As the plot develops it becomes clear that the family’s relatively placid home life has more to do with Gregoire’s ability to compartmentalize his family and ultimately himself through deluded optimism. He separates his family life from escalating debt back taxes and the possibility of losing a treasured catalogue of films his life’s work; Gregoire is a sincere producer who loves cinema and his contribution to it and he is willing to sacrifice to finance talented filmmakers.

The tragedy of the film is that his daughters and even his wife whom he loves from a distance can only know him by this artistic imprint — something he leaves via others’ hands on a mostly unmoved society. The movie business is explored in the trenches depicted as a quixotic race against crumbling financing and here Gregoire is driving as fast as he can (and as far as he can) before he inevitably crashes. His family is left to study the wreckage for mementos of his love and some sign that his efforts will bear some lasting significance.

The 29-year-old Løve’s genuine skilled occasionally profound and almost brilliant film about film and family in some ways resembles the work of Sofia Coppola: It has a film-centric plot disguising a much deeper emotional complexity. Specifically this film evokes the relationship between absent father and daughter in this case three daughters at separate ages and levels of awareness and expression. As fascinating as this look at the movie biz may be more time with the daughters would have served Father well — and that’s true of both the film and Gregoire himself.