If you were to cast your eyes over some of the writings of Stephen Jay Gould you would find him picking a fight with the concept of Phyletic Gradualism. Gradualism is the idea that species adapt gradually to their environment and that this rate of change is so slow and even that it does not really make sense to speak of there being real differences between ancestral species and descendent species. Under Phyletic Gradualism, different species reflect our knowledge of the fossil record and not the realities of evolutionary history. Gould argues instead for a model known as Punctuated Equilibrium. A theory that posits that most species do not change at all and that when evolution does occur, it occurs rapidly and locally. Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have responded to Gould’s arguments by pointing out that nobody, not even Darwin, has ever subscribed to the model of Phyletic Gradualism Gould attacks in his popular writings.
As we see from Dawkins’ memes, the process of evolution is a neat metaphor for other forms of change. Indeed, some thinkers have used the theory of punctuated equilibrium to explain how institutions react to change. But the model could also be applied to individuals as a means of understanding the process of psychological change : People develop understandings of themselves and their surroundings and, over time, these understandings cease to apply. So people allow their ideas to evolve. They adapt their images of themselves and their ideas about the world to suit the new environment. They adapt. They evolve.
One of my favourite things to do when watching a drama is try to work out whether the writer is an emotional Phyletic Gradualist or a Punctuated Equilibrist : Does the drama present emotional change as a slow and gradual process or does it suggest that we exist in a state of emotional and psychological stasis until the levee breaks and we have to evolve in a hurry. However, as with biologists, the best writers are those who do not allow themselves to be trapped by artificial dichotomies. They allow for the idea that people change at different rates and in response to different forms of pressure. They do not distort their characters’ psychologies in order to slot them neatly into a narrative. Mia Hansen-Løve’s Le Pere De Mes Enfants is an example of this kind of drama. It is a film that deals with drastic and sudden emotional change but rather than seeking to pin the process of evolution down to a question of Big Events or Epic Journeys, it contents itself with showing us a few moments along a path travelled at different rates by different people. It also calls into question the vocabulary used by film-makers to communicate these rates of emotional change.
The Father of my Children begins by introducing us to Gregoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a charming and handsome man in his forties who seems to embody the very spirit of French independent film (open-necked shirt, cigarette, mobile phone, shaggily bohemian hair). Canvel is, seemingly, never off his phone. He is constantly speaking to line producers and film directors as he oversees the production of numerous small independent films. However, despite this hectic career, he also finds time to spend with his gorgeous wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and three effervescent daughters Clemence, Valentine and Billie (Alice de Lencquesaing, Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss). In many ways, Gregoire seems to be living the ideally balanced life. But if this were the case then there would be no film.
As we follow the Canvels around, Hansen-Løve begins to gently introduce tension : A daughter who suddenly runs out of shot and into the street, another daughter who disappears into some water, a teenaged girl who keeps herself shut in her room and who complains about being dragged around by her family and Canvel himself pulled over by the police for speeding. All of these events could so easily have been spun up into the kind of family crisis that tends to dominate these kinds of films but Hansen-Løve is simply toying with us. We sit in the darkness waiting for the other foot to drop. Things cannot go on like this. They are too good. Eventually the tension begins to take a more substantial form as Canvel and his wife bicker over his refusal to stop working while Canvel is repeatedly called away to deal with some fresh financial crisis. When Canvel is pulled over by the police he plays the incident almost for laughs… joking to his family that he killed someone and talked his way out of it. This is indicative of a man who uses charm and humour to protect himself and his family from the harsh realities of his existence. Canvel is a man who refuses to face the truth. This mind-set is beautifully rendered in the way that Hansen-Løve refuses to just tell us what the problem is. She toys with us and makes us work for our understanding. Her control over the pace of the exposition is technically flawless.
Eventually, the pieces all slot into place and it becomes clear that Canvel’s production company is on the edge of bankruptcy. He simply cannot go on. But he does not tell his family. Again, Hansen-Løve brilliantly captures this evasiveness in a scene where Canvel takes his family to visit a Templar priory. As he tells them about the history of the Templars, his words are suffocating. They paint a picture of a world that closed in on the Templars. Too rich. Too powerful. They could not last. He could almost be talking about himself. The sense of tragedy is almost unbearable. Unbearable and yet utterly oblique. Like Canvel’s problems.
The Father of My Children is based upon the life and death of real-world Film Producer Humbert Balsan. A champion of female film directors and Palestinian cinema, Balsan committed suicide in 2005 when he realised that he was going bankrupt leaving his widow Donna Balsan to try and save his production company from being stripped down and sold off to service its creditors.
Hansen-Løve does not show us the moment when the Canvel family hear of Gregoire’s suicide. Instead she moves the film forward a few days. Far enough for the shock to have worn off and for the grief to settle in. Far enough for the financial and practical realities to assert themselves. Far enough for the true emotional weight of the suicide to be felt. Fascinatingly, the distance Hansen-Løve takes from the event only serves to amplify its devastating effect. The Canvel do not simply cry or rend their clothes, they struggle to come to terms with their own role in Gregoire’s suicide. They struggle with feelings of anger with each other and Gregoire. They struggle to keep it together. Hansen-Løve captures these struggles in heart-rending style by focusing in on the small moments. The quiet moments where nothing is said but emotions still loom large in the foreground. Moments like the family re-visiting the Templar priory and bursting into tears. Moments like the mother and daughter communicating only by hastily scrawled notes. Moments like oldest daughter Clemence trying to prove how mature she is by ordering coffee only to be beaten into a hasty retreat back into childhood by the confusing array of different coffees “Un Chocolat Chaud” she says in a small voice, smiling sheepishly at the waitress.
It is in the film’s final act that the real intellectual substance of The Father of my Children is felt. The first two acts feature some wonderful acting, beautiful cinematography and breath-taking characterisation but they are still ultimately about grief and loss. Common human emotions and common subjects for films. However, as the film comes to concentrate upon Clemence, its satirical undercurrent begins to assert itself
Indeed, the film’s handling of Clemence is frankly jaw-dropping in its depth and subtlety. Caught by her father’s death on the cusp of adulthood, Clemence seems to feel the death of her father more profoundly than the rest of the family. Or at least, it seems to destabilise her more than some. As the film progresses, we see Clemence evolve from being a sulky teenager into being something approaching an adult. But the path that Hansen-Løve lays out for Clemence is far from a clear one : Middle daughter Valentine gets a big dramatic scene in which she cries her eyes out and is comforted by a friend of the family who tells her to be strong but Clemence gets no moment of dramatic eye-opening. The closest she gets is a beautifully acted moment in which she chokes back the tears while trying to explain that she feels empty and alone.
Instead of allowing Clemence to learn and grow in a traditional sense, Hansen-Løve sends the character hurtling down a series of unrewarding psychological dead ends. As in the scene with the coffee, Clemence tries on a number of adult identities but without really finding any that suit her : She tries to become a cinephile by forcing herself to sit through and then praise a film that even the director says is not particularly good. She tries to unearth her father’s secrets only to find that they were happily buried and forgotten years previously. She even tries to sleep with a young film director her father liked but the experience seems to leave her completely unmoved. Just as the opening act of The Father of My Children contains numerous sources of tension that could easily have been spun up into a crisis, the final act of the film contains an almost comical procession of supposedly life-changing experiences that singularly fail to have their traditional cinematic effect. Nowhere is this clearer than in a brilliantly satirical sequence in which a family dinner is interrupted by a power cut. Before the power cut, the daughters are resolute in their refusal to leave Paris but then, venturing out into the magically darkened city streets, something seems to change. A weight lifts from their shoulders. The next thing we know, the family are happily waving goodbye to their old home and heading to Italy. Only Clemence sheds a tear and moans about not getting to visit the cemetery one last time. She is not ready to let go.
Hansen-Løve’s refusal to close Clemence’s emotional arc is a wonderful subversion of the increasingly hide-bound cinematic vocabulary that film directors have come to rely on in order to communicate a sense of emotional change and progress. Clemence clearly wants to get over her father’s death and she clearly wants to grow up but despite being subjected to all of the various cinematic short-hands for psychological change, she is still stuck : First love does not do it, throwing herself into her father’s passion and past do not do it. Even a fantastical sequence in which Paris is magically remade is not enough to shift Clemence out of her funk. Mercifully Hansen-Løve does stop short of breaking out the montage…
The Father of My Children is not just a beautifully weighted and executed family drama, it is also a savage deconstruction of how predictable and lazy a lot of French drama can be. In fact, The Father of My Children is the perfect antidote to films like The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (2008) whose depiction of human emotion and psychology are not only clicheed and generic but utterly artificial and disconnected from real life. You do not want to miss this film. It marks the emergence of a major talent.