Of The Father of My Children, and the Orphans We Carry

For a month people had been telling me that I would “just love” Father of My Children, a phrase I am sure they did not intend as the kiss of death. But others presupposing my taste irked me; if it were that uniform, I thought, there would be no point to my reviewing film. Also I was irked by the prospect of the film’s director, Mia Hansen-Løve. Only 28, she had made a name for herself as a young actress in films directed by her now new-husband, Oliver Assayas, 26 years her senior. But because I respect the film’s publicist—she’s one of the few who only represents films she genuinely admires—and because I was growing embarrassed by my terrible inflexibility, I requested a screener and an interview with Hansen-Løve. When the first sleeve I received contained the wrong DVD and the second one arrived only hours before our scheduled interview, I began to wonder if perhaps my cynicism was merited, if the whole endeavor was ill-fated.

Then I watched the film.

Loosely based on the life and death of French film producer Humbert Balsan, The Father of My Children’s central character is an independent film company manned by debt-ridden producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). At its start, Canvel is a blur of motion, juggling movies in various states of production and postproduction, investors, the bank, his gorgeous and gently understanding wife, his two young children as well as his ennui-struck teenaged daughter. But when he gets pulled over for speeding, he’s informed he’s already amassed so many traffic points that his license is revoked. Though he declares riding the bus is great (“I can read scripts and met someone I am going to produce!”) it’s clear that Canvel has reached a saturation point. The jig is up.

But the reality of his predicament continues to evade Canvel, who, like all of the most daring and important producers, leads his professional life only one step ahead of total, unrectifiable chaos. He continues to stammer incessantly into his cell phone even though the only phrases on the other end are now “I need” and “no.” Finally, when the bank freezes all his accounts, he freezes as well, and his sudden stillness is scary. What comes next may be inevitable given that his lifeblood pump directly in and out of his company, but it shocks nonetheless. The second act of the film consists of his family and colleagues numbly sifting through the detritus of his company in the wake of his suicide.

This is not an easy movie. It tackles big stuff– the biggest, really, like the precarious balance between present and future, family and work, business and art, mortality and immortality. But it breathes, nonetheless, and it encourages us to do so as well, even in the wake of the grief it recalls in our own lives. Bathed in sunlight streaming through dusty windows, Father’s depiction of the messy, demanding sprawl of independent film is powerfully understated. Like Canvel himself, it is so grounded in film history that it boasts a startling lightness, like the child who dares to climb the highest tree because he’s sure someone will rescue him—until one day he realizes they won’t.

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After watching the screener, I hurried to my interview with Mia Hansen-Løve, suddenly anxious to talk with the person who could create such a work. Since I was her first scheduled interview that day, everyone in the publicist’s office was still milling about in preparation when I arrived. Mia herself sat awkwardly, almost as an afterthought, sipping from a cup of black coffee. Without first greeting anyone else, I quietly slipped into a seat beside her and said how much I liked the movie. We started from there.

What followed was the most moving conversation that I’ve ever had with a filmmaker, which is saying quite a lot since filmmakers are wonderful conversationalists. They tend to be curious about everything. We spoke of the influence of the Nouvelle Vague on her work, and of how Humbert Balsan committed suicide after he agreed to help make her first feature. (A young male character functions as her stand-in in Father) We spoke of the spiritual underpinnings of film and filmmaking, and of how rarely it gets discussed. In fact, I found myself wishing for much more, but since Hansen-Løve had a full day of interviews still looming, I exited back into the day— reeling, blinking madly in the bright sunlight.

A month later, I finally pulled out the tape recorder to transcribe the interview, almost afraid of reliving the conversation lest it might not prove as transcendent as I’d remembered it. But I found nothing. Nothing at all, save a mocking, barely discernable hiss.

Really, I should have known from my other line of work that this might happen. It always does whenever I step right out of the time-space continuum. Electronics tend to break down when everything else falls back and all that can be heard is the sound of another person’s voice in that Winesburg, Ohio “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other” way.  Certainly my conversation with Mia had taken us both out of the rush of our two, otherwise divergent, lives.

Suffice it so say we bore witness to each other’s grief, though hers was receding and mine was yet to come.

For it was when I initially had sat down to transcribe this interview that I suddenly flashed on how much Eleanor Salotto, my first literature professor, my most important mentor, and a true friend of my heart, was going to treasure this film. The email I’d sent her recently had bounced back, and so I googled her in a mindless, mild reverie of procrastination, wondering if she’d left the Southern women’s college where she’d taught for the last decade. The first hit was a local TV spot declaring her a missing person. It took another ten minutes before I ascertained that a body recovered from Virginia’s James River had been identified as Eleanor from her dental records.

I couldn’t breathe.

I knew then that my interview with Mia must have taken place during the week that my mentor’s body was found, and I saw suddenly how Eleanor had woven in and out of our whole conversation. We had probed at the topic of mentors, and of how suicide exists in relation to the act of creating. Makingart; writing, directing.

I’ve never understood suicide. I’m a big believer that if things are so bad you’re willing to kill yourself off, you should consider what else you’d be willing to kill first—like a shitty job or a bad relationship or the part of yourself that you’ve been too afraid to change.

In fact, the only time I ever seriously considered it was during the summer of my 19th year, which too closely resembled Sylvia Plath’s 19th year. That was when I realized that no matter how poorly my parents had prepared me for anything resembling life, I could no longer blame anyone but myself for whatever happened next, and fell into a depression so bottomless that my doctors were convinced I had a brain tumor. It was Eleanor who saved me then. She had been my freshman English professor the year before, and when I wrote her to say I wasn’t going to return to school, she called me immediately. In her high, fluty voice, she said, “Listen, you need to come back to school and study something besides your own navel.” She went on tell me that I was going to be ok because she was going to make sure of it.

And she did. I had my first session with the therapist she found me on the night that I returned to school, and I slowly came back to life under her tutelage; it took a year before I could see colors again or sleep more than two hours at a time. Each week she carefully phoned to ask the right questions–always light, always pointed. She taught me how to balance a checkbook and how to say thank you and, more importantly, how to say no, thank you. She taught me how to buy a dress, how to eat in a restaurant, how to look people in the eye and how to turn in a paper on time no matter how tumultuous my personal life might have been.

She’d be so cross with me if she knew that I hadn’t finished this piece three weeks after the movie had already opened in New York. When I knew her, Eleanor turned everything in on time, no matter what else was going on in her life. That was the only way to reinvent yourself, she suggested. When I met her family, I understood. It wasn’t that they were awful. She was actually close with her sister, though they had nothing in common but their father, who wore the vacant stare some men acquire as soon as they start their first dead-end job, and their mother, who’d died when they were far too young. But it was clear Eleanor had come from a family bound to be more alarmed than charmed by a child as inquisitive and sensitive as she must have been.

So only she could raise herself –and she did, tenderly, slowly, methodically. She worked to put herself through college and then taught young children while she studied how to live as an adult separate from her clan’s mortal coils. She was in her mid-30s when she sorted out what she wanted to be when she grew up, and started graduate school shortly after; landed her first tenure-track professor gig in her mid 40s. It was lucky that she radiated a Modigliani beauty whose timelessness made it hard to place her at any age, even if it sometimes made her feel even more out of step with her peers. (She was 57 when she died but was widely reported as 47, which seemed entirely physically plausible.) Certainly I understood that reinventing her wheel required such hard work that she could not even imagine raising someone else. She was the father—and mother—of her own self as child, and all those roles for one person proved more than enough.

After I got better, I learned that the therapist she found me had also been her therapist, and that she had been saved from a depression even more gripping than the one that had possessed me. But I was young and seeking inspiration rather than fissures in the precious porcelain that was Eleanor and her old-world Italian complexion, so I focused on the implicit happy ending. All I knew was that she had gotten out, finished all the school she needed to attend, lived on her own terms with no family or man to tell her what to do. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

She inhabited lovely, well-appointed spaces decorated with small prints and pink and mauve antiques that were surprisingly luxuriant to sit upon. I adored staying with her during my school breaks, when we slept together chastely beneath her fluffy white duvet on her bed with its ornate wooden carvings. I marveled over the array of lotions and potions polished to a high sheen in her spotless bathroom and studied closely her books, her artwork, her wardrobe. For my college graduation, she cooked a lamb tagine and served me a generous glass of garnet-colored red wine in a large goblet. At my setting at her tiny, heavy table she placed a box so beautifully wrapped that I didn’t want to disturb it, though I felt immeasurable pride and pleasure when I fingered the stiff silk scarf it contained. What I remember most about that evening, though, is the tagine recipe, carefully cut out of a magazine, lined up on the kitchen counter next to another article describing the wine she’d selected for our evening. Even then, my heart filled for the little girl relishing her grown-up dream. It still does.

Over the years, we grew apart. I wanted to raise myself, finally, and it is my fervent belief that we must at least temporarily leave all our teachers if we’re to absorb their lessons well enough to navigate on our own. She didn’t approve of where I’d diverged from her path, anyway. Though I loved English literature as much as she did, I’d foresworn graduate school and declared New York my university. She deemed the dramatic fits and starts I called my love life ridiculous and messy, and I suspect felt the same about my apartments– colorful sprawls of dresses and books and odd bots, punctuated by the blur of my two sleek cats who leapt wherever and whenever they pleased. Her discomfort was more than evident when she began to stay with me on her schoolbreaks, and I found it rude.

The last time she ever stayed with me I was in the process of retiling my kitchen floor, and she declared the apartment uninhabitable. She ran up a long-distance bill that seemed huge on my yoga teacher salary, and listened to classical music loudly on her Walkman all night in the narrow bed we shared while I struggled to sleep. Finally I bequeathed the apartment to her entirely and didn’t creep back from my boyfriend’s until she’d already left for the airport. My cats were enraged.

Although I don’t regret the chasm that widened between myself and my parents after I finally got off their shabby couch, I regret that I could not release my petty grievances with Eleanor while she was alive. We stayed in touch, especially after she was appointed the director of a university film studies program and I became a film critic. She remained a beacon for me as a single, childless woman. But we were never close again. We slipped from a domestic intimacy into friends who met only once during her visits to New York, and eventually stopped talking even on the phone. Once she tried to tell me how disappointed she was by the distance that had grown between us, but I responded coolly, refused to be pulled in.

Like Canvel’s filmmakers, I had made her into something she did not ask to be, and then punished her for not living up to it. Yes, she was fussy and, yes, a greater flexibility might have helped her when she became disappointed by the life she’d worked so hard to achieve. But she loved me fiercely when I was at my most unlovable, and she raised me the best she could. More to the point, she saved me from myself, and it will haunt me for forever that no one, including me, saved her from herself in turn.

Though Eleanor’s had been ruled an apparent suicide, I wondered at first if she’d been murdered, which I found I preferred to the idea of her ending her life. More googling revealed that, one day mid-semester, she’d simply not appeared at her classes or picked up the friend who’d flown into the local airport to visit her. I might not have seen Eleanor in years but it was inconceivable that she could’ve transformed so completely from the woman who always honored her commitments, especially to herself. But when I heard back from the few people we still knew in common, they confirmed a suicide note had been found.

I imagined the velvet and lace finery she must’ve left behind, the pages of notes in her round, precise cursive for her next book of critical theory, the hush of her ordered rooms, the students still living at the vulnerable precipice from which she’d rescued me, and it slayed me. A friend took me out kayaking in Red Hook’s harbor to cheer me up but I found myself shaking as the sun set on its dirty waters, imagining the will and misery required to plunge herself forever into the dark mystery of a river.

I suspect that in the end it was the work that failed Eleanor, as it failed Canvel and Balsan, for it was the work that always lived at the center of her life. Every painting she observed, every film she attended, every meal she enjoyed, every conversation that took place, even the oddly old-fashioned clothing that she managed to find no matter how modern the boutique, always came back to her own world of critical literary theory, where Hitchcock and Zola and postmodernism and the Brontes shimmered together in a hypnotic, spidery gossamer.

Only 2 percent of modern suicides occur by drowning but such deaths were more common during the 18th century, the literary period Eleanor claimed as her academic field. And when the world outside her studies failed her, I believe she wrote herself into her work, fabricating her own death as the kind of gothic detective fiction that she had written about so cleverly for years. I can imagine her admiring the symmetry of the death, its neatness, and I both love her as the little girl building out her own life one last time, and feel desperately, violently ill.

As Canvel’s (and Balsan’s) family, friends and colleagues must have felt though for opposite reasons. It was their fate to inherit the mess of his company, which he abandoned rather than solved. It is my fate and the fate of everyone who loved Eleanor to inherit the legacy of her unexpressed anger, an anger I now realize I always sensed beneath the precision. But I wasn’t big enough to embrace that little girl who feared that if she didn’t do all her homework exactly the right way she’d lose her ticket out. Instead, I was annoyed by her. She deserved to know she was lovable not despite those qualities but because of them, as they’d helped her survive as long as she did. Instead, I think that we all let that rigidity keep us at arm’s length, even those of us who should have known better, read her better. Wrote her better.
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When I watched Father of My Children I was still groggy, nursing my first coffee, combing the film for possible interview questions. Less than ideal circumstances for full immersion, and yet one instance of the film especially caught me.

In it, Canvel and a colleague are listening to a director rant about how they’re cutting corners. After she leaves, the colleague explodes as well: “I work seventy hours a week. I get home at 12 am too! I’m killing myself here!” Shoulders slumped, Canvel shuffles into his office and mumbles he’s going to take a nap, though he’s typically a man on line in every sense of that word. He falls asleep instantly, and the next shot is of a mid-20th century young boy, playing wordlessly. For a second, we’re disoriented. Is Canvel dreaming of his lost youth? Is the film itself jumping back in time to a scene from his childhood? Then the shot widens to reveal the screen on which the image is projected, with Canvel only half-watching what must be a rough cut or dailies.

It’s a segue that distills so much. How artists invariably transform patrons into the parental figure who has let them down, whom they scorn and rail against but petition endlessly. Of how Canvel would prefer to be the beloved child rather than the censorious, responsible parent—probably why he made film in the first place. Of how the experience of watching a film sends us back to our childhoods, when when we were still willing to suspend judgment and surrender to awe. Expected to be awed, even. When we still hoped.

And at that instant, a text comes through on the cell Canvel is idly thumbing in the dark: “Accounts frozen.”

I may not recall some of the details of this conversation with Mia Hansen-Løve but I remember that fluty voice not unlike Eleanor’s in which she struggled to speak English. With her colorless features and neat but unremarkable sweater, she did not seem like the French husband-stealing vixen I’d imagined though did she seem very French. More like a big thinker– a perpetual student, in an unaffected, endearing way. I saw that what she and Assayas shared was a serious, old-soul empathy.

I had asked her if she so frequently worked with kids because she herself had been a child actor and she’d responded that it stemmed from the purity of intent they still possess. This reminded me of the segue from Canvel’s nap, and to my surprise I began to weep while I described the beautiful confusion that it had triggered in me.

“It made me think about how we look to art to redeem us, especially film, and how it sometimes works but only as a means, not an end,” I said through my tears and she began to weep as well, nodding, as did her translator who had seen the film only the night before.

At that moment, the publicist reminded us gently that many others were waiting to speak to Mia. I collected my things in a daze not unlike Canvel’s, except mine was the daze borne of the joy art can help us attain. It was the joy of communion, both with others and with our true, timeless selves. Which is what, ultimately, this brilliant film is about—that connection to ourselves and each other that art can make possible.

And what remains when what saved us becomes that which fails us most.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy