La dolce Mia: A Conversation with the Director of "The Father of My Children"

An interview with the French director about her second film, "The Father of My Children..
Daniel Kasman

Above: Mia Hansen-Løve, director of The Father of My Children. Photo by Fabrizio Maltese/EF Press/

When jaded cinephiles and old harrumphs say they don’t make them like they used to, or when, if you are lucky enough, you cast a long glance and sigh deeply at the touring Jean Renoir retrospective and wonder where the light and life of the cinema has gone, rest assured we try to keep alive the passion and perspicacity to stand here and now and point at films that we think shine brightly.  And as the son of one of the greatest of painters has his films moved like a traveling blessing from New York to another lucky city, we are lucky to have a contemporary—I was about to say modern, but Renoir is perennially modern—film open to shine its play of daylight, capitalist melancholy, children’s playtime, the life and death of a small company, and the buckling and perseverance of a family brightly on the walls of cinemas,  Walls previously darkened by dull digital projections, artistically flat 3D, and pretentions that life is something to be presumed, not filmed. Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children, the filmmaker’s second feature, debuted at Cannes last year, where it won an award in the Un Certain Regard section, and David Phelps waxed in precise detail on its graces and insights.  Little other comment needs repeating here other than advocacy to see it, a movie of rare humility and honestly, with a sorrowful, bright pleasure in the small things the camera picks up around the locus of an event.  I had the chance to talk to the director in March when she debuted her film at the New Directors / New Films program in New York.  Thanks to Ellen Sowchek for her help translating.


NOTEBOOK: You see a lot of films about filmmaking, and they are almost always about the set, what's going on behind the camera on the set. But what I liked about your film was that it took place in production offices, something I've never seen extensively in a film. The story of filmmaking not as production of a crew on location or a studio, but production of the business. What interested you about this setting?

MIA HANSEN-LØVE: For me, the relevance of this film is also in this aspect, because when I first thought about doing this film it was because I had the desire to make a portrait of this man, and this man happened to be a producer. My first desire was not to make a film about cinema. For me it was more a source of inhibition, in a way. I never thought I'd make a film that deals with cinema. But then, when I really started thinking about it a lot, I realized that doing this film would give me the opportunity to deal with cinema in a way that had more or less never been done before. I realized that all the films I had seen about cinema described it in a way that has almost nothing in common with my own experience of it. So, actually, when I wrote the screenplay and when I made the film, I had the great chance to deal with a subject that had almost never been treated before this way. I really liked the fact I could make a film not about the "spotlight" or all the big clichés you see like the producer with the big cigar and big car. One of the reasons why we don't really see the sets in my film, except for one or two very short ones, is that in reality the shooting of the film is a really small part of the actual business of making films. All the main characters are not actors; even the filmmakers, who are very important, have very small parts in the film. I had the feeling that I could make a film on cinema in a new way, and in this way say new things about cinema.

NOTEBOOK: As a filmmaker do you find that majority of your time "making a film" isn't the shoot but it's finding the funding or dealing with producers, the prep and post production?

HANSEN-LØVE: That's certainly true for the producer, but I'm thankfully not spending too much time finding money myself. For the producer this is true; most of the time they spend is finding money, dealing with bankers, things like that. Those aren't the things you think about spontaneously when you think about making your film. One would think it would be thankless to make a portrait of this side of cinema, but actually I found it very exciting. Even the kind of relationships characters have to each other on this side of cinema, the relationship between a producer and a lawyer, or to a banker, etc.

NOTEBOOK: There is a line in American criticism goes against the notion of auteur cinema the classical Hollywood system, and posits the producer as the auteur—David O. Selznick as a man leaving his signature more prominently on the films he produced than the directors who shot them. One doesn't often see contemporary art cinema in that light, where production is on a much smaller scale, lower budgets, smaller movies. Yet your film focuses on a producer that you don't actually see do much creatively or artistically, but whom you elevate to the prominence of a star or someone who is leaving a mark on the industry.

HANSEN-LØVE: That's something that really interested me when I wrote the film—does this man have a body of work, or not? He's not an artist, but he's almost an artist. I think the tragic aspect of his story, his life, deals with that. He deals with art, is deeply inhibited by questions that deal with a quest for spirituality, for freedom, everything that deals with art, but at the same time he deals with money all the time and his job is very pragmetic. I think this situation has something tragic in it. It's something that I understood when Humbert [Balsan] died, and I think it's a very impassioned matter for me.

NOTEBOOK: It's a little sad, that these kinds of producers don't get recognized any more. Coming from an American perspective, the last international producers I'm aware of are the guys who funded the French New Wave, Georges de Beauregard or Carlo Ponti or Barbet Schroeder, but now I couldn't name the people who produce your works, or Jia Zhanke, or Hou Hsiao-hsien. I don't know who it is who helps filmmakers like you make movies. Until Humbert Balsan died, I hadn't known of him either.

HANSEN-LØVE: Actually, he's not a famous person, but in France Humbert was quite well known. Still, he was very unique in his way. In France we still, of course, have some great producers, but we don't have copies of Humbert. Also, something else, and it's always like this and it's also the good thing about making films—when my film was shown in Cannes, you can't imagine how many people, producers, say "you know, Humbert, it's me." And it's not them, but I think it's good that people project themselves into the film. But the story, I think, is very specific—the charm he had, the integrity, the melancholy, also, the secret melancholy. Everything that defines him, to me makes him unique, and you can't really say "oh he's really like any French independent movie producer."

NOTEBOOK: That's one thing I was curious about, was indeed how specific a portrait the film was to that man.

HANSEN-LØVE: The parts in the film that deal with a personal life, his wife and children, etc.—that comes from mainly from me. Lots of it is intuitions. When I wrote the script I didn't know anything about his private life. Now I know more, since that I've become friends with his wife; but when I wrote the script I didn't know anything. The thing that's very, very similar to him is more his presence, the way his appears. His aura, so to say. And also, of course, the story of the film production. The only way possible to tell the story of this film is that it is a film about the last days of a film company. That's the way I wrote it, the way I structured the script. People point to the fact he dies in the middle of the film; but the whole film is structured around the idea of the last days of a film company, and these are the various stages it goes through up till the liquidation at the end.

NOTEBOOK: Was it particularly difficult, or emotionally raw thing to actually make in Paris in the same crowd as such a recent tragedy?

HANSEN-LØVE: There were people who were unhappy with the idea of this film. But if I could make this movie, it was thanks to my first movie, which was not a big economic success but had good critical reception, and thanks to that I got money from Canal+ and Arte for this film, and they really trusted me. The people from these places understood why I wanted to make this film, but there were people who didn't understand. People in the business who look at it say it's kind of like a reverse narcissism, that we're in it but no one else and no one will be interested in a film about this type of auteur cinema in France, it's too specific, it's too precise. They have this attitude that people won't be interested. And it's not that people will be more interested in it because it's about the cinema, but its a subject of interest equal to any other kind of subject. And I think this point of view reflects also what I say in the film, more deeply, and the way I see the cinema—cinema has to be connected to real life, and I wanted to make a film about cinema not as something to escape life, not as something l'amour, but cinema is being a part of life. I wanted to make a film where there was a constant dialog between film and life.

NOTEBOOK: It seems possible to make an analogy between the producer's family, his small family, his company with his staff, and his films, his catalog he's produced. Film being a family enterprise. I always read the title as referencing his actual children but also as his films or his employees.

HANSEN-LØVE: Ah! I keep saying that but you are the first person who gets it. For me, the title doesn't only refer to the family but the films and the filmmakers that are left alone after the producer's death. These are the things that interest me in the title. In the first part of the film, and even later you have the two aspects of the film, the film dealing with both family and work, and progressively the two questions become one, the central question of the film, how does one survive after his own death. Does the soul exist in a way, and how can you see it in real life?

NOTEBOOK: Considering the film is interested in legacy, it is such a contained little movie. You never see people watching or discussing the films he made, you don't see an audience at the retrospective the daughter attends talking about the great movies he has produced. His legacy, at least in terms of his films, live on in suggestion. I like that you don't place undue importance on the quality of the movies he's made, people mention filmmakers he's "made" and the importance of the company's catalog, and you see that the staff and family believe in these films, but you never provide us with a view that what they are talking about, the legacy, is actually quality work.

HANSEN-LØVE: I think it's kind of nice that you don't have the objective value of these films. Even with Stig, the "genius" filmmaker, and maybe he is a genius or maybe not, we don't know that either. What is important is that it's really a question of faith, faith in the cinema, and in these films, and in this particular filmmaker. The desire to make these films, to make them exist. It wasn't intended to be a film saying how fine these films are.

NOTEBOOK: That's one reason I like the eldest daughter, because she has an ambiguous relationship to her father's work. She's both fascinated by the retrospective but repulsed by her mother's decision to take over and finish up the company's production work. Her character emphasized that what was important was not the value of the films but the value of the work put into them to the people around the movies.

HANSEN-LØVE: You really don't know, with the daughter, what she thinks of her father's films. What you gradually see is that she is at the beginning of her path. She's really just starting to learn what the work of her father is all about.

NOTEBOOK: To drive in at a small detail, I'm curious about that old, small chapel that you filmed in the countryside, how you found it and how it worked its way into the film.

HANSEN-LØVE: Actually, the teenage actress [Alice de Lencquesaing] was in my first film. She was kind of the inspiration behind this, and she has two sisters who were also inspirations for this film. She knew of this place, and really introduced this place to me, which was how I discovered the chapel. It was an instance where the decor inspired the scene rather than the scene dictating a decor I had to find. It's not to give this scene too much importance—it's really an anecdotal kind of scene—but what's really important is the little child with the ladder, where she tries to climb the ladder but is told not to, and later on the ladder is not there any more, it's been moved, and you see the ladder leading up, out of the open roof of the chapel. In my film I think that often the most important element of a scene is not the thing you think is the most obvious, sometimes a detail can be the real reason, the heart of a scene. The heart of this particular scene is that ladder.

NOTEBOOK: I'm really curious about how you direct children, because I love the children in this film, they were so beautifully directed, and they reminded me of real children, and real children really playing, which is something I find so rare in cinema: What it's like when kids play.

HANSEN-LØVE: Thank you for that question, but it is really mean for you to ask that as a final question because I could speak hours about working with children! It's true I really like working with children, and maybe the success of the scenes they are in is really a reflection of just how much pleasure I took in directing them. What's really important is that when I work with kids they improvise but it is a very guided improvisation, it's not simply improvised across the board. As we worked through successive improvisations it leads them more to the character I wanted to represent. Most of the time, the things I like the most about the scenes with the children are things that they invented themselves, but I helped them to invent them. I think they needed to be guided, in a way. We took a lot of time. When I work with children, I consider my time to be infinite, you know, there is no limit, and that's something really hard to say when you make films because time is money. But I am lucky that my producer understands very well that the quality of the film depends on this specific luxury, and the gave me as much time as I wanted to work with children, and I think it helped a lot.

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