Wednesday, May 26, 2010

With THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN , Mia Hansen-Løve joins first-rank French filmmakers; Q&A w/the director

In March of 2007, the FSLC's annual Rendez-vous With French Cinema presented an unusual and riveting documentary about the late French film producer Humbert Balsan.  Covering that festival for GreenCine, I saw the film -- HUMBERT BALSAN: Rebel Producer by Anne Andreu-- and reviewed it at that time (the review is here). Now, young French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve,  who, two years back, gave us the interesting but to my mind not entirely successful All Is Forgiven, returns with a narrative feature inspired by and based in some part on the story of M. Balsan's final days and how his family copes with the aftermath of the central event of both films.

TrustMovies is pleased to report that Hansen-Løve's new film THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN (Le père de mes enfants) is an unqualified success on every front -- as narrative, as filmmaking based-on-life, and as a film about family, coming-of-age, cinema itself -- and the very difficult job of being a producer. In fact, the behind-the-scenes explorations of how films come about and problems are resolved (or not, see below) is as good as I have ever seen. The filmmaker, shown at right, does not take the easy, satirical view of this (no need, really, as moviemaking/moviemakers so often provide instant satire of their own accord), nor does she subscribe to any dark/tragic view of "art undone" by commerce or hubris. No. The filmmaker's strengths appear to be her equanimity, her ability to see clearly the big picture and the small and to weight nothing down unduly via her own prejudices. (I am sure she must have these but she either holds them back or keeps them well out of our view.)

We've seen plenty over the years about how put-upon are our poor directors -- so creative and abused!  What a treat and pleasant surprise it is to see all this from the perspective of a producer who genuinely cares about art and the making of it, but must come up against constant and thorny financial problems in order to get that art made.  The producer (here called Grégoire Canvel) and his loyal, frustrated, loving staff are captured here with such reality and detail that when, midway or less, the bottom falls out, you might expect the movie to lose steam.  Hardly.  For this is when Hansen-Løve's primary concerns surface.

These are the children of the Canvel family, as well as the wife (played with strength and reserve by Chiara Caselli, above), who must come to terms with what has happened and continue with their life.  How all this is accomplished, which intertwines with other stories (a young screenwriter and his screenplay, what will happen to Canvel's movie projects in various stages of completion) is brought to fruition without any rushing or undue "happy endings."  Hansen-Løve never loses her sense of reality -- and the constant change and stasis, disappointment and growth that accompany it.

The actor chosen for the role of Canvel -- Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, shown above -- I have seen in smaller roles (Les destinées, À vendre). Here he comes into his own, and I cannot imagine that Humbert Balsan, himself an actor in his early career, would not be pleased with this terrific performance.

At the close of the press screening I attended, the immediate talk centered around the seemingly amazing work of the children in the film -- there are three of them: Alice de Lencquesaing (good in Summer Hours, here she simply shines), Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss -- who range from late adolescence to quite young. It is rare to see such accomplished, honest performances from child actors of any age. (I am guessing that Alice de Lencquesaing -- below, right -- must be the real-life daughter of star Louis-do, and that both are now part of the Olivier Assayas stable of actors, from which Ms Hansen-Løve, as M. Assayas' life-partner, can conveniently draw.)

As good as the film is in all other ways, this terrific use of children may be its crowning achievement. (Ms Hansen-Løve tells us how this came about in the Q&A that follows.) It's a little early in the game to be heralding a film as classic. But so far as are concerned movies about film-making and family -- as well as the "film-making family" -- I believe this one may someday be held in the same re-
gard as those of another fine French filmmaker: François Truffaut

The Father of My Children, from IFC Films begins its theatrical run on Friday, May 28, and in also avialable via IFC On-Demand starting today, May 26.  In New York City, you can see it NYC at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center (it opened in Los Angeles last week!), and for the "if", "how" and "when" of On-Demand, click here and follow directions....
We meet with Mia Hansen-Løve in the offices of one of our favorite PR agencies -- Susan Norget Film Promotion -- where the filmmaker, among the sweetest, softest and most "womanly" of any I've so far met, greets us with her translator.  Below, TrustMovies is in bold and Hansen-Løve in standard typeface.

I really loved this movie, and though I enjoyed your earlier film, All Is Forgiven, to some extent, it didn’t particularly move me. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Father of My Children. But it seems to me that in terms of filmmaking, this one is a big step up for you. One of the most striking things about your movie is the amazing performances you got from the children in the film. They were all very real, life-like, believable -- but also quite specific. Maybe this comes from both your casting choices and in the way you worked with them. Can you talk a little about this?

Thank you for this… (Mia gives a modest little laugh).

After the screening, by the way, all the people around me were also saying the same thing.

Oh… my English is so poor I can not express everything I want to say. (So, from here on in, she says what she can and the translator handles the rest.) When I wrote this film, I knew the key – the children -- would have a very important part in this. From my first experience on the first film, it was the great pleasure I had to work with children. Especially when they have the possibility to be very free and to invent things. I don’t like improvisation. I don’t really trust it in general. When I see it too much in films, I don’t like this because I feel that the actors -- it is like they are treading water.

I feel the same way! I am not a fan of improvisation, either.

Me, too.  For that reason I don’t really like it as an obvious method. But at the same time, I have the feel that when it I use in certain situation, it can really lead to extraordinarily good results!

I used to write plays, way back when, and I didn't really like it when actors improvised. But occasionally, by accident, a line would come out that was absolutely brilliant, and you can’t say “No” to that.  So I guess improvisation does have its uses.

The thing that I experienced with the children in this film, was a certain... not exactly a method, but it is really can be an interesting way to work.  I don’t have a specific method for working in improvisation, but it must be a limited and structured improvisation that, in a way, leads the children back to their characters. The most important thing to me, when working with children, is to give them the time they need to work. You may find this very banal and obvious, but I think that not so many filmmaker work like this – to give children TIME! To have the time to give to things that need to be done. This is what I made clear with my producer from the start: The most important thing, the luxury of the film, will be the time. I can have no limits to the time I spend with them. To make, for instance, very long, ten-minutes shots. To do this again and again, if I think it is interesting.

It is not like the children were not good; they were good from the start. The thing that is important first, is the choice of the children. I just chose children who had nothing to do with cinema They had a kind of viriginity and real innocence in terms of cinema. They were very grave -- they had some kind of maturity -- but innocence at the same time. The most important thing was that we were able to work a lot on each scene and reinvent that scene. To reinvent the film progressively. I feel I found the way into their “interiority,” you know? When I work with children, I find the real meaning of making films! Because they bring freedom, disorder, fantasy -- real life -- to the film. This is why I make films -- I make them in the quest of life and truth. And I find I can do this best by working with children.

Well, this certainly came through! The way the children interact with the man and woman who played their mom and dad was so interesting, as well. Both actors seemed so right and real with the kids.

When you use children there is something very active between us and them. You can not just take them from the outside and put them in and control them. You have to let them hold the reins from time to time, too, so there is this interaction between adults and children. For example in the scene when the child learns that the father is dead and the child begins to cry, people ask me how did you get the child to cry? I didn’t: The tears just came. They came from that child’s own concentration. It’s the choice of the actor, the casting, that is important. The child had an emotional interior that she was able to draw on to do this scene.

My grandkids are 5 and 2, and while they have no interest in acting that I know of, I would certainly trust them with a filmmaker like you. I think they would learn about life and cinema -- at the same time as they were acting.  And they would also be protected.

Thank you so much! I want to talk about a scene I really like – the next to last scene where the children go to their father’s office for the first time. In effect we had no specific script for the children, but we didn’t really need it to bring the scene alive. The children were asked to just discover that place. It came together by following them, seeing how they observed and what they did. A lot of the dialog spoken just came from them, as they discovered this new place. Then, in the very last scene with they are leaving and they discover their father’s cards, and the one little girl says, can I take one? And then another and another! Those comments also came from the children. (Ed's note: Just talking about this scene brings back to film to mind – and tears to my eyes -- all over again.)

Has the family of Humbert Balsan seen your film?

I don’t know if everyone in the family has seen it. When I wrote the script, I avoided to contact them because I want to be able to write the script freely, without being influenced one way or another. When I finished, I contacted the wife, because I had already seen her twice, at the funeral and in the office. And I thought she had a very moving presence. I am not sure I would have made the film if she was very against it. But when she read the script, she understood and respected what I wanted to do. Anyway, it was very consoling to see that, in reality, this person was just as generous as I had hoped she would be.

You must have seen the documentary that was made a few years ago by Anne Andreu…?

Yes, I saw it.

I saw it too, because it was shown here a few years ago at Rendez-vous. And I really loved it. Before I saw it, Humbert was just a name. But afterward, he became important in my mind. And now, with your film, he seems even more so. I don’t know if it is like this in France, but here in America, if you are interested in film, the word producer... well, you don’t pay much attention to that. Everything is about the director. And maybe just a little bit about the writer. But the producer? No, no, no. When I saw the film documentary, I realized more than ever how important the producer can be. And I got this same feeling even more from your film. How important it is to have someone in that position who is creative in his own way.

To me, the producer, when he is a very good one, is like some kind of father. When I met Humbert Balsan, I felt like he was a kind of spiritual father for me. So the title of my film -- Le père de mes enfants -- has really two meanings.

Yes -- and his children are also his movies!

The film has this ambiguity: both meanings. I know that this particular type of producer is the reason this project was so relevant for me. Because this producer is not the habitual cigar-smoking, driving-the-big-car kind of cliché producer you are used to seeing. In fact, he is someone who is himself almost an artist. What is interesting to see here is the real suffering involved. He is at the service of art, and he wants to be at the service of art: But then at other times he must deal with the question of money.

Exactly! One more thing I want to ask you, having now seen both your films. I don’t know how true this, is but this is my “take” on your films. The first seemed more reticent, with characters who seemed to hang back and not move forward as much. Whereas in this film, for all the bad stuff that happens -- suicide, even -- it seems much more positive, forward-thrusting - -even for Balsan himself. People are working! Maybe – this is why I prefer the first film to the second. Does this make any sense?

On the one hand, in the first film you have a character who is feeling very melancholy, reticent. On the second you have someone consumed by his work, very forward moving, very energetic. .For me, what happen is, ultimately at the end, this is like a mirror, the reflections come together at the same time.. The films reflect each other.  Here at the end of this film, you have the adolescent who becomes the main focus, so it is a question of transmission from one generation to another. For me this really ties the films together. Both films deal about the passage of time, about losing your father and trying to survive. About love. Both films have characters who are not into bad feelings. And both films have characters who are almost the same – though in two different bodies -- who have interior beauty, and I try to capture this secret beauty, the interiority of both. The way they will survive the death of their father – in a sense they also grow morally within themselves because of the death of their father. Basically, I think both films have a very common problematic – but expressed in different ways.

Your comments really make me want to see All Is Forgiven again. Thank you so much, Mia. This was really a treat to meet and speak with you.

All photos (except that of Ms. Hansen-Løve)
are from the film itself.


GHJ - said...

Jim - I couldn't agree more. This is a near-masterpiece in my book. The Olivier Assyas connection makes it even more interesting. The pacing is sublime and the performances are incredible.

James van Maanen, said...

You saw this one already? Great! Yes, it IS something else. And the Assayas connection just adds to its fascination, as you say.

GHJ - said...

Yes, I actually saw it almost a month ago at an IFC press screening. I was absolutely floored by it. My review for EInsiders should be up Friday.