If you didn’t love him, you would have to hate him. French film producer Gregoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) makes the management of a daily grind of crises, ranging from minor to explosive, look no more difficult than the picking up of a phone. A businessman whose financial worth would be impossible to evaluate, since his work and value seems all contained in his head, Gregoire walks briskly through the streets of Paris and his bustling office, taking one phone call after the next about his far-flung projects, looking the quintessence of chic.
Of course, it isn’t that simple.
Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve’s deceptively astute drama The Father of My Children begins in what seems an easy, urbane world. Gregoire hops into his car (a Volvo station wagon, no less) and drives out to the family’s country home, juggling two cell phones and chain-smoking, his voice an even murmur as he puts out fires with a light, utterly reasonable charm. At the home, a quaint little estate with an old Templar chapel nearby, Gregoire spends quality time with his extremely understanding Italian wife, Sylvia (the magnificent Chiara Caselli), and their three daughters.
For a time, Hansen-Løve makes you think that maybe he can have it all, the soul-satisfying work of bringing great art to light, the comfortable lifestyle of a born gentleman, and a warmly loving family who don’t mind that he’s barely present, a ghost on a cell phone. The country home and the city apartment are decorated with style but warmth, books and plants everywhere. Instead of slumping in front of sitcoms at night, the family gathers to watch the two youngest girls (who seem to have picked up all their father’s charm and then some) act out their own version of the evening news broadcast in a way that’s so winning even Clemence (Alice de Lencquesaing), their grumpy adolescent, forgets herself and laughs contentedly while nestled into her father.
But the crises are coming closer and closer together. It becomes clear that Gregoire’s company, Moon Films, is heavily indebted to a long list of antsy creditors who aren’t assuaged by his planned slate of problematic art films. Sylvia explodes at him for constantly talking business even while they’re on vacation. Even Gregoire’s blithely winning ways appear to have their limits.
Under his mellow calm and handsomely tousled appearance lies a dark panic that makes itself more apparent as the debts are tallied up. A film lab demands a million euros in back payment. Meanwhile, an over-budget film being shot up in Sweden by a director of Kubrickian procrastination is dangerously draining the coffers, though Gregoire maintains that it’s all worth it, because the director’s a genius.
Gregoire’s juggling act would seem more of a lark if he hadn’t clearly sunk his entire life into this venture. He quips to a friend that there’s “No time to see movies!” not long after joking, “Maybe I’ll jump out a window.” A true believer, he’s in it for the love of the cinema and the head-clearing rush of having to make it look exquisite on a shoestring. When the unusually attentive Clemence (much of the film’s latter sections observe her observing the world) sits through a retrospective of the works of one of the directors her father championed and is moved beyond words at their particularly gnomic Central Asian “realism,” it’s as though she finally understands something about Gregoire’s pell-mell life and what it was all for.
That last consideration, what it was all for, that takes on more pressing urgency as the true costs of Gregoire’s choices make themselves clear. Hansen-Løve’s writing is as limpid as her filming, and she allows her actors generous room to explore their roles without once becoming overindulgent. The film knows that nobody truly cares about those behind the scenes, but that there are other kinds of artistry that don’t involve a pen or a camera, but simply a phone and a warm, soothing manner. “When he was in front of me,” one director says about Gregoire, “my anger disappeared.” One could say the same thing about this film.