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Cannes 2009: Playtime ("Father of My Children," Hansen- Løve)

All is Forgiven is the name of Mia Hansen-Løve’s first film, Doris Day’s "Que Sera Sera" ends her second as cars enter and exit Paris, and the presumption that affairs move on and whatever will be will be is a good deal of what makes the world of her films as recognizably ours (mine) as hers. In both Hansen-Løve’s films—The Father of My Children is the new one—the narrative of a relationship or a life ends, and the film goes on to see how supporting characters grow up to deal with the residue; in both, characters walk around between rooms and talk to people they meet while background conversations and games continue as one character moves onto the next and wait to be reentered into. Obviously, she’s not the first to care about life beyond the frame—of the narrative, of the image—but unlike, say, Griffith, Tati, or Renoir, whose characters are resolutely themselves despite the surrounding context, or Hou or Yang or Assayas (something of Hansen-Løve’s mentor), whose characters are struggling to be themselves against the surrounding context, Hansen-Løve’s characters can tailor themselves to a situation at hand and seize it. This is one reason why all the context at the edges counts. The panoply of particular details in The Father of My Children—characters surveying the fridge mid-conversation and turning off lights as they leave the room—isn’t just valuable evidence of real lives lived in 2009, and isn’t just larkish beauty of people amusing themselves by dancing and hooking up and swimming. For the most part, it’s also evidence of all the situations, from hunger pains to bankruptcy, that the characters have to deal with, and all the people that have to deal with them. The story is of a producer whose company is in debt, and the things he does during the day and night.

 

Lives are relative in these movies, as in life: situations change according to the character involved, and characters change according to the situation. Only children, in The Father of My Children, are insistently themselves, and they’re always acting: Manelle Driss, as Billie Canvel, a 6-year old, tucks her mouth and blurts her eyes as she waits to deliver lines in a play, as if suffocating them to the moment, walks funny long strides with her family by a river, and winces widely when her mom expects her to tactfully say she’d like to move. All of these gestures are as hammy as they are revealing, and as revealing as they are real—Hansen-Løve’s technique was to get the kids playing, hide behind the furniture so they wouldn’t think about her, wait a few minutes, start rolling, and to call the main actors in for the scene. The result’s probably about the best film about children and childhood there could be.

 

Because even though The Father of My Children isn’t about children or childhood, it is: children’s comedy inside a bubble, adults tragedy outside, even though Hansen-Løve’s children are adults, able to cope with drama and move on, while her adults are children, innocents unable to deal with the practicalities of real life, and so childish not to think of the effects they have on anyone else (she’s said she deliberately picks actors with childish features, round faces). The childishness is also their charm: "yes, yes, I killed a man," says the producer, Gregoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), as playful as his kids, when the cops take him in for speeding and he calls home to explain where he is to his family. The major question of The Father of My Children is who these people are when they aren’t playing at life, and what they feel in a world where people express their love for one other by making each other coffee. The pivotal moment of Father answers the question even as it suspends it indefinitely. Where All Is Forgiven had soul-baring arguments, Father builds off the best moment of that film, where two characters who don’t know each other take a leisurely walk, look at each other occasionally, say nothing, and it’s clear their newfound love for each other is just an ability to get along well with one another.

 

Father only has these moments of hidden reserve, the children aside (and counterpointed). The film flies with these little grace notes of interactions, then slows down for its best moments, Impressionistic shows of leisure, almost from Renoir or Manet, as characters at key moments relax in isolation: a young girl with her face just emerging from milky white water (an image inspired by Nostalghia), her older sister as she sits by the window and light seems to soak into her, the older sister again after a night with a boy as she orders a cappuccino at a bar, puts her head on her hand, and listens to Lee Hazelwood. In a film that watches time pass and relationships change in the most minute exchanges, these are the hinges, Hansen-Løve explains, the moments of transition that she started the film with along with the real-life story. Somehow, it’s these shots of characters doing nothing but gazing off that are the most revealing, in a film where despair lingers inside and outside but is only once seen on-screen, the single moments characters have to themselves from time and the world.

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