While it’s accurate to say that Mia Hansen-Løve is wise beyond her years, it’s also insufficient. The 29-year-old French writer-director of The Father Of My Children is wise, period. Originally an actor with small roles in Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies, Hansen-Løve turned to short filmmaking in the ’00s, and made her feature debut with 2007’s All Is Forgiven. Although it’s only her second feature, The Father Of My Children echoes the mature reflection of movies like Assayas’ Summer Hours, a natural influence, since she and the 55-year-old director are currently engaged, and she gave birth to their first child last year. Her new movie was inspired by Humbert Balsan, the charismatic French producer of Lars von Trier’s Manderlay and Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, whose 2005 suicide was prompted in part by his imminent financial failure. As the title indicates, the movie focuses less on the Balsan character, played by Louis-do de Lencquesaing, than on those left to pick up the pieces after he’s gone, from his family to the professional colleagues left high and dry. (The plight of a profligate director whose in-progress production is jeopardized by the producer’s death is taken from the fate of the last film to bear Balsan’s name, Béla Tarr’s The Man From London.) Opening with the nervous chords of The Modern Lovers’ “Egyptian Reggae,” The Father of My Children is a delicate chronicle of loss and persistence, a reminder of the things people leave behind and those they take with them when they go.
The A.V. Club: The structure of this film is unusual, in that you essentially switch protagonists midway through. Why did you choose that approach?
Mia Hansen-Løve: It’s true that it has a deconstruction of one of the main characters in the middle, but to me, it really is more emblematic of the idea of passing the torch. It’s really a reflection of life and something I myself have experienced, where in life you have people who disappear out of your life for one reason or another, and then there are others who formerly were in the shadows, and now they come to the foreground. This is something I really wanted to do, something I did in my first film. And with Humbert Balsan’s death, I started to think about it again, and it made me almost go back to that same idea of the passing of the torch, using his death as a way of rethinking what I had done in the first film.
AVC: It isn’t a film about Humbert Balsan; his story is in the movie, but it isn’t exactly parallel. In writing the script, how did you negotiate his story vs. the other things you wanted to put in the movie?
MHL: Fortunately, I didn’t always make that specific distinction while I was working on it—what was fictional and what was non-fictional—because I found that when I was writing the screenplay, all these things were coming together. The fiction has its own kind of authority, and it imposes this authority on what you’re writing about, so the distinctions between which are real and which are fictional really don’t become as important as the logic of the fiction. It’s logic that helps things sort themselves out on their own. It really has a kind of instinctual side. I want to work on things I know, that I experienced, but they’re not necessarily exactly things I’ve experienced. I do want to emphasize that the story of the producer and his production company is very closely based on the reality of what took place. The whole idea of the company going bankrupt and the deaths is very close to the truth. In fact, the truth was probably even worse than what was in the film.
AVC: The producer character’s company is named Moon Films, using the English word, which seems a bit strange until we learn that he also has a son named Moune whom he hasn’t seen in years. There’s an implicit comparison in the movie between literal fatherhood and the parental role that a producer plays in the making of the film. The “my” in the title is ambiguous; it could refer to his wife, or any of the filmmakers he’s helped make films.
MHL: [Laughs.] You guessed it. You did really well. That ambiguity and that sort of mirror quality that goes through the whole film, of reality and fiction and light and dark, that’s something that continues through, and this is part of it. I had this idea that he had this child, this son Moune that he abandoned, and then when the time came and he had the company, he unconsciously gave the company the same name as sort of a mental lapse. It wasn’t a conscious thing on his part.
AVC: Viewers might think that after the producer’s daughter tracks down Moune, he is going to become part of the movie, but he doesn’t. She finds him, but that’s it.
MHL: This is one of those few false trails that I put in the movie, because it’s one of the few that doesn’t really have a conclusion. The conclusion would have been for her to actually meet the son, and this isn’t the case, but it has a conclusion with her not meeting the son. They’re somewhat similar if you think of her experiences. After someone commits suicide, you try to reconstruct what they were, who they were, and she’s trying to go through a lot of his things, the letters which you also don’t know the contents of, so it was really never my intention to have her meet him. It was part of this whole idea that trying to get to know who her father was, this would be one aspect. You try to uncover all the secrets of the person, you’re still trying to grasp them and know them, but not meeting the hidden biological son also has a real purpose, because then it leads to her meeting with the spiritual son, who is the young male screenwriter and filmmaker. The title of the screenplay is Accidental Families, so this is really on this trail going from the biological son to the spiritual son. This is then the spiritual family.
AVC: The actor playing the screenwriter is related to you, right?
MHL: My cousin. I know that people were thinking that this is me in the film, but I really didn’t choose him for that reason. I chose him because I was looking for a Bressonian kind of actor. I felt that because of the importance that [Robert] Bresson had for Humbert Balsan, it was important to have someone like that.
AVC: You’ve talked about Bresson’s influence, and also the influence of Jacques Doillon’s Ponette, which is about a 4-year-old girl dealing with her mother’s death. Those aren’t movies that work with actors in a traditional way. Coming from an acting background yourself—
MHL: I never felt like a traditional actress. I was chosen in an open call. It wasn’t part of the traditional way of casting. It’s true that in the film, there aren’t a lot of name actors. I can’t really see myself making a film in the traditional way, where I would have a casting list, where it would be “These are the 10 best people,” and checking each one off as you call to see if they’re available. I think what’s really important in the choice of the actors is when you meet with them and something happens, there’s some sort of a spark.
It’s almost like a love affair that takes place between the two of you. This is something that has to be there, and whether it’s with very professional actors or actors with not as much experience or no experience, that’s the thing I’m looking for when I’m casting. I notice that each time, with all the people I’ve used in my films, the adolescents and the young people, I’ve noticed in the screen test, that when I look at them they seem to have an aura around them.
AVC: The movie often avoids the potential for conventional drama, like not staging the tearful reunion between long-lost half-siblings. Instead, you often focus on moments that are just about the characters occupying a space, taking in the reality of the world without this man who meant so much to them. Are those written, or is it a matter of you being in a location and taking advantage of the moment to shoot something? How do those find their way into the film?
MHL: Both, I think. I didn’t go to film school, and I didn’t have it in my head that there are certain rules about “this kind of scene must follow this kind of scene,” but I think there are sort of universal rules of narrative, and we all kind of have an idea of what they are. Maybe they are something more intuitive, but we know that we want this, and this would naturally follow. What I tried to do, I worked very hard to develop the rhythm of the film, because that’s important. But also, sometimes the location inspires the scene. When that happens, it can do either of two things: It can inspire within the scene a different kind of acting on the part of the actor, sort of bring something more out of the story, or else it might just be the beauty or poetry of the place that also contributes to the rhythm of the film.
For instance, the things you see in Italy, or even the thing in the beginning of the film when they are in the countryside and the visit to the chapel, it can seem very unnecessary. But to me, it’s totally necessary for invisible reasons, for poetic reasons. It’s funny, because when I showed the film to the financers, one of them at one point said, “Maybe you should cut the scene of the chapel, the first one. It’s no use. We don’t need that. We’re losing time.” I think it’s a mistake. Everything in my film is there for a reason, and each scene has its reason. Here you have the first scene in the chapel, and here’s the father, and he’s telling them about the Templar knights, but it’s not as important to me specifically what he’s saying. It’s the idea that he’s talking to his daughters, and he’s giving them this kind of information, which then, later on, when they return to the chapel, gives that chapel scene a sense of memory, a sense of what took place before. So in effect, the first scene is set up to help the second scene give that feeling. And I think also it’s important, because it’s a way of showing how the father is transferring to his daughters his love of art and history. This is particularly important later on when we see Alice [de Lencquesaing], who is becoming interested in art as she is becoming an adult.
AVC: There’s the moment where the daughter is sitting in a café ordering coffee, and there’s a Lee Hazlewood song playing.
MHL: This is the kind of scene that’s really hard to defend when you’re trying to finance the film, because they kind of look at it as the throwaway scene. “Why is it really important to be there?” But, in fact, it’s a scene that’s really very important. It’s a difficult scene to set up, but you have Alice, and she’s there in the café, and she starts out like an adult ordering a coffee. Then a lot of things happen to her in that scene. She overhears the conversation. She’s met this young man. She’s spent the night with the young man. At this point you realize that maybe this marks her move. Now she’s moving toward being an adult. But then, in the very end, she orders a hot chocolate. So maybe she’s not totally out of her childhood yet.
AVC: There’s a thread based on Humbert Balsan’s experiences with Béla Tarr, who in your movie is a brilliant but exasperating Swedish director whose disregard for finances helped push the producer’s company into bankruptcy. The director talks about how he was a difficult man to work with, but he loved cinema.
MHL: Sometimes in the film, there are a lot of loose ends, but this is really not a loose end. After hearing [the director] spoken about so often in the film, this is the one opportunity we have to see what he’s really like. What’s important is to give him an opportunity to speak. Once he’s there, once you’ve got this human being in front of you and he’s speaking, he speaks very well about [the producer]. He has a kind of depth to what he says, a profoundness, which maybe is not quite what the previous images were. Once you have the living person in front of you, it gives you the opportunity to see them as a real person and judge them that way.
AVC: And then he sues them.
MHL: [Laughs.] Yes. I hoped you were going to say that.
AVC: As in life, it’s not always personal.
MHL: That’s it, yes. That’s exactly what I tried to say.