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 presupposing my taste irked me; if it were that predictable, there’d be no point in 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-husband, Oliver Assayas, 26 years her senior and then married to another. But because I respect the film’s publicist—one of the few who only represents films she admires—and because I was embarrassed by my terrible inflexibility, I requested a screener and an interview with Hansen-Løve. When the wrong screener was sent and its replacement arrived mere hours before our scheduled interview, I began to wonder if the endeavor was in fact 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 is about debt-ridden producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and his flailing independent film company. At first, the man is a blur of motion–juggling movies, investors, the bank, a gorgeous and understanding wife, two young children, and an ennui-struck teenaged daughter from a prior marriage. But when he gets pulled over for speeding, his license is revoked because he’s already amassed so many traffic points. Though he declares the bus great–“I can read scripts! I will discover new subjects!”–it’s clear some jig is up.
But reality continues to evade Canvel, who, like all of the most daring and important producers, lives only one step ahead of total, unrectifiable chaos. He continues to stammer incessantly into his cell phone even when all the responses are “no.” Finally, the bank freezes all his accounts and he freezes too. What comes next may be inevitable given that his lifeblood pumps directly in and out of the company, but it shocks nonetheless.
The second act of the film consists of his family and colleagues sifting through the detritus 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, and mortality and immortality. But it breathes nonetheless, and encourages us to do so as well, even in the wake of the grief it nudges us into feeling about our own losses. Bathed in sunlight streaming through dusty windows, Father’s depiction of the messy, demanding sprawl of independent film is so powerfully understated that it boasts a startling lightness, like the child who dares to climb the highest tree branch because he’s sure someone will rescue him.
Until one day he realizes they won’t.
After watching the screener, I hurried to my interview with Mia Hansen-Løve, keen to talk with a person who could create such a work. When I arrived, everyone in the publicist’s office was still milling about except for Mia herself, who sat alone almost like an afterthought, sipping from a deli cup of black coffee and staring ahead. Without greeting anyone else, I quietly slipped into the seat beside her and murmured how much I liked the movie.
What followed was the most moving conversation I’ve ever had with a filmmaker, which is saying quite a lot since filmmakers are wonderful conversationalists who 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 soon after he agreed to produce her first feature. (A young male character functions as her Father stand-in.) We spoke of the spiritual underpinnings of film and filmmaking, and why they rarely are discussed. As the interview drew to a close, I found myself wishing for more, but since Hansen-Løve had a long day of interviews looming, I exited back into the light of day, blinking madly in the bright sun.
A month later, I pulled out the tape recorder to transcribe the interview, hoping the conversation would prove as transcendent as I remembered. Instead all that was discernible in forty minutes of tape was a faint, mocking hiss.
Really, I should have known this might happen from my other line of work. It always does when I step out of the time-space continuum. Electronics break down in soul time, when the kerfuffle of regular life fades away 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. Without a doubt my conversation with Mia had taken us both out of the rush of our otherwise divergent lives.
We had borne witness to each other’s grief, though hers was receding and mine was yet to come.
Weeks before, when I first had sat down to write about Mia, I had flashed on Eleanor Salotto, my first literature and film professor, my most important mentor, and a true friend of my heart. Knowing how much she’d treasure this film, I’d emailed her but the message had bounced back. I googled her in a mindless, mild reverie of procrastination, wondering if she’d left the Southern women’s college where she’d been a tenured professor over the last decade. The first hit was a local TV spot declaring her a missing person. The second was a newspaper report that a body recovered from Virginia’s James River had been identified as Eleanor Salotto.
I couldn’t breathe.
I realized that my interview with Mia must have taken place during the week my mentor’s body had been found, and suddenly saw how Eleanor had woven in and out of our whole conversation about mentors, film, and how suicide exists in tandem with all forms of creativity.
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’re willing to kill first, be it a shitty job or a bad relationship or the part of yourself you’ve been too afraid to change.
The only time I ever seriously considered killing myself 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 else for my actions, and promptly fell into a bell jar so bottomless that doctors were convinced I had a brain tumor. I couldn’t see colors, I couldn’t metabolize food (especially my mother’s); I couldn’t feel the right side of my body and was plagued by a constant headache so severe I couldn’t stand up for more than a few moments at a time. In short, I was a Freudian case study, but all I knew at that age was I couldn’t live like that and couldn’t see my way out of the tunnel.
It was Eleanor who saved me. She had been my professor the year before, and when I wrote that I wasn’t returning to school, she called immediately. In her high, fluty voice, she said, “Listen, you need to come back and study something besides your own navel.” She went on say I was going to be ok because she was going to make sure of it.
And she did. The night I returned to campus, eighty-nine pounds and shaking, she brought me to my first session with a therapist she’d found, and slowly I came back to life under the two women’s tutelage. It was a year before I could see colors again, another before I could sleep more than two hours or eat a full meal. Each week she phoned to ask the same careful questions–Have you eaten? Have you slept? Are you going to class? Are doing your coursework? She taught me how to balance a checkbook and say thank you and, more importantly, no, thank you. She taught me how to buy a dress, to eat in a restaurant, to look people in the eye, and to be prompt no matter what.
She’d be so cross if she knew I was finishing this piece three weeks after the movie’s stateside release. 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 said. 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 long-deceased mother and their father, who wore the vacant stare some men acquire when they start their first dead-end job. It just was clear Eleanor hailed from a family more alarmed than charmed by a child as inquisitive and sensitive as she must have been.
So only she could raise her, and she did so–tenderly, slowly, methodically. She worked to put herself through college and then taught young children while she studied how to shed her clan’s morbid lethargy. She was in her mid-30s when she sorted out what she wanted to be when she grew up, and landed her first tenure-track professor gig in her mid 40s. It was sheer luck that she radiated a Modigliani beauty whose timelessness made it hard to place her age, though if it made her feel even more out of step with her generation. (She was 57 when she died but widely reported as 47.) It was obvious to me that reinventing her wheel had required such hard work that she could not imagine raising someone else. She was the father—and mother!—of her self, and all those roles for one person proved burden 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 more gripping than the one that had possessed me. But I was young and seeking inspiration rather than cracks in the precious porcelain that was Eleanor, so I focused on her implicit happy ending. All I knew was she had gotten out, finished all the schooling she required, and 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, and I adored staying with her during my school breaks. We’d sleep together chastely beneath a fluffy white duvet on her bed with the ornate wooden carvings, and I’d marvel over the array of lotions and potions polished to a high sheen in her spotless bathroom and study her books, artwork, wardrobe. For my college graduation, she cooked a lamb tagine and served garnet-colored wine in generous goblets. 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 our teachers if we’re to absorb their lessons well enough to navigate on our own. She didn’t approve of how 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 of my love life ridiculous, and I suspect felt the same about my apartments– colorful sprawls of dresses and books and oddbots, punctuated by the blur of two sleek cats who leapt wherever and whenever they pleased. Her displeasure was evident whenever she stayed with me, and I found it rude.
The last time she visited I was in the process of retiling my kitchen floor, and she declared the apartment uninhabitable though she made no effort to line up other housing. 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. 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 heaved off their shabby couch, I regret I did not let go of my 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. More than that, 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 each of her visits to New York, and eventually stopped talking 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, refusing to be pulled in to what I read as a myopic self-pity.
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 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 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 death had been ruled an apparent suicide, I wondered at first if she’d been murdered, which I actually preferred to the idea of her giving up on life. More googling revealed that, mid-semester, she’d simply stopped appearing at classes and had failed to pick up a friend flying into the local airport to visit her. I might not have seen Eleanor in years but found it inconceivable that she could’ve transformed so completely from the woman who always honored her commitments, especially to dear allies and dependents.
But when I heard 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, the hush of her ordered rooms, and her students still perched at the vulnerable precipice from which she’d rescued me. All of it slayed me. A friend took me 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 in which she participated, even the oddly old-fashioned clothing she found 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. I have come to believe that when she tired of the Southern rural academic town she now called her full-time home, of the limited conversational and romantic and cultural opportunities, 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 the little girl building out her own life one last time, and feel desperately, violently ill.
It was Canvel’s and Balsan’s loved ones’ fate to inherit the mess of the producers’ failed companies. 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 her precision. But I wasn’t big enough to embrace that little girl who feared if she weren’t perfect she’d wouldn’t be loved. Instead, I was annoyed, though 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.
I think we all let her rigidity keep us at arm’s length, even those of us who should have known better, read her better. Wrote her better.
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 caught me.
In it, Canvel and an associate producer are listening to a director rant about how he’s cutting corners. After she leaves, the associate producer 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 taking a nap, though he’s typically on 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 figures who have let them down, ones whom they scorn but petition endlessly. How Canvel would prefer to be the beloved child rather than the censorious, responsible parent—probably why he got into film in the first place. How the experience of watching a film sends us back to our childhoods, when we were still willing to suspend judgment and surrender to hope and awe. When we still hoped, in general.
At that instant, a text comes through on the cell phone Canvel is idly thumbing in the dark: “Accounts frozen.”
I may not recall some of the details of my conversation with Mia Hansen-Løve but I remember the fluty voice not unlike Eleanor’s in which she struggled to speak English. All colorless features and well-tailored if unremarkable clothing, she did not seem like the husband-stealing vixen I’d imagined though she did seem very French. More like a big thinker–a perpetual student in an unaffected, endearing way. I saw that she and Assayas shared a serious, old-soul empathy.
At one point, I asked if she so frequently worked with kids because she herself had been a child actor. She responded that it was because kids still possessed a “purity of intent.” This reminded me of the hypnagogic segue from Canvel’s nap, and to my surprise I began to weep while describing the beautiful confusion it had triggered in me.
“It made me think about how we look to art, especially film, to redeem us, and how it sometimes works but as a means, never an end,” I said through my tears. 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 interrupted to remind us many other journalists were waiting to speak to Mia. I collected my things in a daze not unlike Canvel’s fatal fog, except mine was 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, ultimately, is what this brilliant film is about—–that connection to ourselves and each other that art can make possible.
And what remains when that which saved us becomes that which fails us most.