JUNE 12, 2010
The Father of My children
Some situations in film stories are so common that, when a film character enters one of those situations, he must be reminded of a similar moment in a picture he himself has seen. For prime instance, an extramarital affair. When such an affair looms in Mademoiselle Chambon, the viewer can’t help feeling that the two people sense they are beginning to repeat a film. How could any two intelligent people fail to remember films with similar stories, fail to feel that their film experience is in some degree blended with their beings? If that is true, whatever the subject, for many of us viewers, why wouldn’t it be equally true for people who are actually the characters in a film? And when the film is as well done as this one is, the blending enriches.
Mademoiselle Chambon is set in a French town, unnamed. Jean, fortyish, strong, affectionate, is a construction worker in his own firm. His wife, Anne-Marie, works in a print shop. They have a young son, Jérémy, and nearby is Jean’s elderly father, whom they all care for. (Regularly Jean washes his father’s feet for him.) Our first minutes with all of them are the first of the film’s victories. A happy family is established without glop, with no mechanical strain of a norm being set up in order to be altered. The director Stéphane Brizé, who wrote the screenplay with Florence Vignon (adapted from an Eric Holder novel), is so intent on the daily mosaic of his people’s lives that we hardly notice they are all happy.
Because Anne-Marie is ill one day, Jean has to pick up Jérémy at school and thus meets the boy’s teacher, Véronique Chambon, blonde, friendly-and-reserved. The moment they meet we know what the film is going to be about, although there is not the slightest hint from either of them. Yet it is hard to avoid thinking that Jean and Véronique must be reminded of films with similar beginnings. When they next meet, Véronique mentions that a window in her house needs repair, and when Jean agrees to do it, we know that the die is cast. But all the movement toward the affair is slow, graceful. It takes some time before they even kiss. They both know two things: how they feel and what they are risking. They cannot help proceeding. (Just as in those films they have seen, which are never mentioned.)
Véronique plays the violin, was almost a professional, and, at Jean’s request, plays for him one day. He, without being suddenly transformed into an aesthete, is much moved. So are we, because we see how he and she are trying to envision the future. He invites her to play at his father’s birthday party. She agrees, and when she plays Anne-Marie notices the way that Jean is listening and suspects why he has seemed so preoccupied lately.
Véronique has not had a permanent teaching job--she fills in at different schools when there is a temporary vacancy--but now she is offered a permanent post in this school. Understandably, she decides to move on to a post elsewhere. When Jean hears this, he wants to go with her. She tells him that she is leaving the next day on a train at ten. It is up to him to come along or not.
Next morning she is on the train platform, not actually expecting him but constantly looking for him. He, as the skillful editing discloses, is (possibly) hurrying to get there, packed bag and all. The sequence is something like a moment in that insufficiently appreciated gem The Bridges of Madison County. (One of the best examples of good art made from poor art.) Meryl Streep, a farmer’s wife who has had an affair with a visiting stranger, is riding down the street with her husband when she sees the stranger’s car as he makes his way ahead-forever. It is her last chance to go with him. Streep, like Jean in this film, has a moment in which to weigh the present against the future--and the past. I wondered if Jean had seen Streep’s scene.
Much of the verity of Mademoiselle Chambon comes from the two main performances. Vincent Lindon gives Jean, from his very first pneumatic-drill moments, an aura of power, and he soon adds maturity, affection, humor. Sandrine Kiberlain, in the title role, is one of those women who, without startling beauty, are beautiful. And she is able to suggest that she is withdrawn, peeking through curtains, even when she is in a room facing someone.
Brizé directs with a sense of texture--he knows the world that each of his people contains, and he tempers the film accordingly. Presumptuously perhaps, still reasonably, we can assume that his two lovers feel they were entering the shape of some films they had seen and wanted somehow to be wiser for it. Film has by now created its own sort of collective unconscious.
Another French film is a bit of a puzzler for a while. It is consistently good, or else it wouldn’t puzzle; still, discussing it is a challenge. The Father of My Children is in two parts. The first part is especially welcome: it deals with a Paris film production chief--thus a man who helps to make the dream ambience of the people in Mademoiselle Chambon--and it deals with him in a manner that shows the grit under the dream. Then quite suddenly it alters into a different film, fulfilling the title but a drastic change. What is really sticky: the event that ends Part One and starts Part Two is what we might normally consider the end of the picture, not to be revealed in a review. But the film-makers have put it smack in the middle and therefore made it impossible to elide.
Grégoire Canvel is a production chief, about fifty, lean, quick, rationally emotional--he responds quickly to provocations but is always in control. He is married to Sylvia and has three daughters, the oldest an early teenager. He has troubles. In the first few minutes he is constantly in motion in the busy Paris streets, walking, driving, always talking on a cell phone. His company, Moon Films, which has a picture in production now in Sweden, is in a money jam, and Grégoire is much like Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers, except instead of fighting off numerous swordsmen on a staircase, he is fending off numerous creditors. An immediately taking quality in him is that when he meets his family, in town or at their country house, he at once ceases to be a fraught boss and becomes a loving father--tumbling, teasing, et cetera. He is able to be completely in any moment, whatever the moment is.
Moon Films is not big, but it has had a generally successful record up to now. The offices are far from grand, and they are staffed with people who care about the films, about Grégoire. The office traffic is a smaller version of the busy streets through which we first saw him bustling. All of the staff support Grégoire in his struggle to preserve Moon’s catalogue--that is, to keep from selling off their past films to an unknown buyer in order to save the company.
In the midst of this bother Grégoire manages to visit his people in Sweden to lubricate production hassles if he can. Besides the money storms, there are blips with the genius Swedish director. Grégoire manages at least to leave them all more adjusted to their problems. Back in Paris, still moving swiftly, he continues to fence with creditors. Though he doesn’t himself seem to worsen, conditions clearly do.
Then, as if in some sudden recognition of the facts, we see him withdraw some papers and a pistol from what is apparently a safe-deposit box. Without fuss or drama, he sits down on a curb in the street and burns the papers, slipping the ashes through a grate. Then he stands up and shoots himself. There in the street.
Besides the emotional shock--our response within the film itself--we feel a formal shock. Should this shooting have come so soon in the film? Isn’t this the finish, not an event along the way? The world has long noted that much of the effect of Janet Leigh’s murder in Psycho is that a star isn’t usually killed off so soon. Thus Grégoire’s death seems out of place.
Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, who has worked with Chabrol and Godard and Handke and Haneke, gives Grégoire the perfect paradoxical state--complete control when he is harried. Grégoireseems so intently focused on his goals that he is unshaken by obstacles, yet within the armor of intent, he is vulnerable. De Lencquesaing’s actual daughter Alice plays Grégoire’s teenage daughter and evokes in us exactly the right parental feelings. Chiara Caselli is movingly afraid and firm as her Italian mother.
Hansen-Løve began her career as an actress, then, after a period as a critic, became a director. She made some shorts, then a first feature. The Father of My Children, her second, shows such clarity of purpose, such dexterity of style, such concord with actors, that she whets our appetite.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.