Mia Hansen-Løve, The Father of My Children

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As a teenager, 29-year-old writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve was plucked from theater classes at her Paris lycée and cast in Late August, Early September (1998) by Olivier Assayas, a heady experience that would come to shape her future endeavors. After a brief detour into academia, she made a few short films and, like Assayas (to whom she’s now married), briefly contributed to Cahiers du cinéma before embarking more seriously on the path of becoming a film director. Early on, the late producer Humbert Balsan (champion of Elia Suleiman and Claire Denis, among others) took an interest in Hansen-Løve and helped finance her debut feature, All Is Forgiven (2007). Although the seemingly indefatigable Balsan took his own life two years before the film was released, he is a presiding spirit of sorts in Hansen-Løve’s latest, a dialectically structured ode to artistic devotion and familial bonds. [Spoiler ahead.]

Winner of a Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2009, Hansen-Løve’s briskly paced The Father of My Children trails Paris-based independent film producer Grégoire Canvel (a dynamic Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) through the frenentic routines of his professional and personal life. Canvel’s a man in constant motion, juggling numerous projects and stressful conflicts (teary-eyed actors, a walkout on the set of a Swedish production) while trying to steal time with his increasingly impatient wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and their three daughters, including teenager Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing). Beset by a chain of quickening financial troubles, Canvel finally confesses to Sylvia that his company, Moon Films, is on the brink of bankruptcy. His next instinctive decision, glimpsed in a scene shocking for its abruptness and brevity, is decisive, leaving Sylvia and kin to grapple with his material and spiritual legacy. Admirable for its lean, limpid style, Father observes the tension between outer calm and inner anguish on either side of that act, with Grégoire’s drive and personal velocity set against quieter, movingly rendered scenes of domestic contentment (a play staged by the youngest daughters, who mock their father’s harried work routine, is wonderful). It’s a sophisticated and poignant story of the often thankless challenges and personal costs of making art.

Filmmaker spoke with Hansen-Løve about commitment, legacies, Balsan’s influence, and how clarity of style can reveal truth. The Father of My Children opens Friday.

Writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve. Courtesy IFC Films.

Filmmaker: To me, this film seems like a tribute to people who dedicate themselves to crafting a certain kind of cinema.

Hansen-Løve: To me, it’a tribute to commitment. That’s an aspect of the film that really matters to me. This question of engagement, to put your whole self into something. That’s what I like to do in the way I make films, so it doesn’t matter if it’s about a producer or a filmmaker, it’s about someone who puts his whole personality and energy into what he does. And it’s all in a quest for art. In this case, what I’m dealing with is a very specific person. And what I’m hoping is that through this character who has very specific qualities, from that specialization, broader ideas [emerge]. The more precise you are, the more universal you can be. When films are about a general thing, to me they will never say something true.

Filmmaker: The film has two halves, with a pivot point in the center. On one side is a man who invests himself, financially and spiritually, in filmmaking. On the other side, we see the legacies of that investment.

Hansen-Løve: Yes, right.

Filmmaker: The perspective also shifts. We see the world continuously through Grégoire’s eyes, and then in the second half, multiple perspectives emerge – those of Silvia, Cleménce, the children. How did that structure develop as you wrote, and then how did it play out as you went to shoot the film?

Hansen-Løve: From the very beginning, I had this idea that Grégoire would die in the middle of the film. It’s not a gimmick, it’s not something I’ve done because it was a cool idea or whatever. To me it has to do with deep questions: What is it that remains from a man who has built so much, after his death? How does his soul survive? Through his personal relationships and links to his family? Or does it survive through the work he’s done? And to me, this question is crucial and appears very clearly in the last scene of the film when the girls go to the office and the mother says, “His soul will survive through the films.” And the daughters say, “Not only through his films, but through us also.” This question is very interesting to me, and the title of the film has this ambiguity. To me, the “childen” are the films, or the filmmakers. The first part of the film is really more like an action film; it’s got a lot of speed and hyperactivity and energy. The second part really deals with mourning. And for some people, it’s a very abrupt change. Yet, as the film comes to a conclusion, it brings these two halves back together.

Filmmaker: That’s a duality we’ve seen before in your work.

Hansen-Løve: The exciting thing was to make a film that incorporates a lot of characters. In my first feature, All Is Forgiven, I dealt with some of the same themes, but I did it on a minimal basis. So the challenge here was broadening the scope of the number of people I was including.

Filmmaker: I found the film tremendously moving, even though in some ways it sheds emotion. You’re not building any obvious dramatic moments for us to react to. Instead, you capture a lot of mundane detail. The only real emotional climax is near the end, when Clémence is looking out the window of the car as they’re leaving the city.

Hansen-Løve: I don’t get the sense that I’m distancing myself and relating to [the characters] in a cold way, but I really think there are two different kinds of emotions you can have. One is artificial, something at the heart of it is really false, and doesn’t last. What I wanted to get the feeling for here is a very special kind of emotion that’s perhaps not as obvious, but that’s based on truth, and that the viewer is going to see. I’m more interested when people tell me “I was very touched in this scene which is connected to everyday life,” than if people tell me, “Oh, I was completely destroyed by the moment where he kills himself.”  For me, the most interesting moments are very ordinary, like the scene where Grégoire is on the phone, just before he goes upstairs to the office. He’s talking in a flat, businesslike voice, but all of a sudden you get the feeling that he’s taking possession of himself inside.

Filmmaker: I got the sense throughout that I watching an imaginary documentary.

Hansen-Løve: I like this expression. [Smiles] Thank you. I think it’s very close to what I try to do.

Filmmaker: I’m thinking of another scene where Grégoire wheels into the office and is approached by several people who all need his input.

Hansen-Løve: You know, I would have liked to make a three-hour film about him in the office. I can’t tell you the pleasure I had filming this. I surprised myself after writing the script to be so passionate about filming someone with all these people around him. It’s hard to explain why, but I think it has to do with the passion of the character himself. It’s a way of living. When I met Humbert Balsan, I think it transmitted to me some kind of faith in cinema, in the way he was practicing it, some kind of energy of self-confidence that still remains. Even after his death and the despair that it revealed, what I keep from him is this energy and happiness for [making movies]. And filming someone working all the time in this happiness is very cathartic.

Filmmaker: I can’t recall having seen a film that gives such a detailed observation of the business side and all the work that goes into producing independent films.

Hansen-Løve: That’s why I tried to be so precise in the beginning. For that part, I really worked like a documentarian with my script assistant. What we did was go back to our office and take copious notes about how we worked and interacted with each other. I wanted to create, in the background of the scene, something that was real, not just people moving back and forth. So I worked very hard on those details. There’s something very famous about Visconti: When he shot The Leopard, he wanted to make sure there were real sheets in the drawers, even though the drawers were closed! I tried to be like this in the office—you don’t think about it, I hope, when you see the film, but I felt everything had to be thought through for this film, to have a reason to be there. I could explain to you every single movement, every phone conversation you hear in the background. Everything has a meaning for me.

Filmmaker: I’m interested in your style here, too. The images are unadorned. You’re not obsessing over lights and camera movement. And yet there’s a palpable vitality in the cut, in the editing.

Hansen-Løve: For me, style is absolutely essential, but not in the way people usually use it. The thankless part of film is that people see style when it’s heavy, you know? [Laughs] The more style fades and disappears, the more it’s erased, the more it creates a style of its own. What I’m really striving for here is clarity in form and in substance. I think that in order to do that, there can’t be any affectation. There has to be a truth, and it’s through this style that this is achieved.

Filmmaker: How did you arrive at that as the right way for you to shoot films?

Hansen-Løve: Maybe something that helps me is that I’m not so self-assured, so I prepare too much. On the set I do it again because I have to have real life, the real set, the real actors. You have to rethink everything. But it helps me to prepare a lot before, that I know why I’m doing what I’m doing on the set, even if it’s very different. I can work hours on a scene and think, How should this be filmed? Do I want it to be one shot or seven? I need to know why I want the scene to be shot this way.

Filmmaker: And in terms of the editing?

Hansen-Løve: It may be that the second part deals with the whole mourning process, so maybe it seemed slower. I like to have a very precise, cut-and-dried [approach to] editing which goes straight to the heart of the scene. There are some directors who think drawing out a scene allows you to tell more of the story. I think the more economical you are, the more truth it’ll lead to in the end.

Filmmaker: Yes, and to my eyes at least, that’s a tradition that comes from Bresson and Resnais, down through André Téchiné and others, at least in France.

Hansen-Løve: I think maybe I’m an heir of that, perhaps not directly, but it’s really the kind of cinema I’m thinking about when I make my films. The expression of both form and substance is important. And thinking about Resnais, Bresson, or Garrel—these are all very different filmmakers—I think in terms of speed, that’s where the connection is. I have a melancholy approach, and even my next film has that aspect, but that idea of speed will be there as well. One of the things I got from Humbert Balsan is this idea, how you can use speed as a way of expressing something. He was a big influence on me in that way.