Mia Hansen-Løve

Mia Hansen-Løve

Interview with the director of The Father of My Children

May 28, 2010 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Grégoire Canvel, the lead character in French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve's second film, The Father of My Children, is based on Humbert Balsan, the French film producer who was chairman of the European Film Academy when he hanged himself in 2005. Balsan intended to produce Hansen-Løve's first feature, All Is Forgiven, but his death left the film in limbo until it was completed with other producers in 2007.

Like Humbert Balsan, Grégoire (played by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a charismatic producer whose company is immersed in debt. Though he has a wife and three children who share idyllic weekends with him in the country, his financial failure consumes him and drives him to suicide. Grégoire's death is central to The Father of My ChildrenHansen-Løve structured the screenplay so that the suicide occurs midway through, an uncommon moveyet the film breathes with vitality. The heartbreak and shock that Grégoire's family withstands in the aftermath of his seemingly inexplicable decision to abandon them is offset by the atmospherically rich family sequences constructed by Hansen-Løve. With impressive performances from the film's two youngest actresses, the scenes play like vivid memories, moments that are too uneventful to warrant snapshots or home video recording yet resonant enough to be cherished through time.

It's no accident that The Father of My Children shares a kinship with Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours, which was released to critical acclaim in the States last year. Hansen-Løve, 29, is the fiancé of Assayas, who hired her for her first film workas an actresswhen she was 16 years old. Under the Radar spoke with Hansen-Løve last week by phone through a translator.

How and when did you become interested in filmmaking?

It's not something that came upon me suddenly. It was something that developed progressively. It goes back to my experience in Early September, the Assayas film in which I was an actress. It was a very traumatizing experience for me, but traumatizing in a very good way because I was a rather melancholy teenager, and I found the experience of being on the setthe feeling that I had while being on the setto be a very liberating one. I had a sense of happiness and freedom that I had not felt before, which, afterwards, I continued to try to find again, to try to recreate those feelings. I did my studies in German, I spent two years in the acting conservatory and drama conservatory, I worked for Cahiers du Cinéma as a writer. But when I was 20, I made my first short. This was one-and-a-half days shooting with no budget, a very short period of time, but while I was on the set doing it was the first time I was really able to recapture that feeling that I had had when I was on the set in the film, back when I was 16, but tenfold. I knew that this was what I wanted to do.  

How were you cast in Late August, Early September? Did you have much acting experience at that age?

It was done, we call it in French "casting sauvage," which means either going out onto the street and looking for people there, or sometimes contacting people who are teaching theater courses or acting courses. And, at that time, I was in high school, and I was taking a theater course, and the teacher of the class had received a fax saying that there was going to be this casting. She looked at it and she said, "Assayas, he's pretty good. Since he's OK, why don't you try for it?" And, I went. What's very strange was I had this awareness, almost an anticipation of this is what my destiny was. I was absolutely certain that I was going to get this part and that this was going to be something that was meaningful to me in my life.  

I've read that the inspiration for this film came from your encounters with Mr. Balsan. Yet, the film is so rich in its depiction of family life. I was wondering if those scenes developed from the same original idea or if they took their inspiration from elsewhere?

The inspiration for it really comes from elsewhere. It turned out that there were parts of it that were very close to reality, and I found this out later on when I spoke with the widow of Hunbert Balsan, who I got to know only after his death. But I think that primarily the family scenes are based on my own experience, on the experience of people that I know and people in my family, and their experiences, but I think that it's interesting that, as I spoke with his wife and his daughters, whom I also met after I had made the film, that there really are many things that are close to what it is. I tried to interpret from his personality, as I knew it, what his family situation was like. And I really didn't know any of the private details of his life. I spoke with his wife, and I got this impression, but really, still I don't know much about his private life.

A powerful scene in the film is when the daughter, Valentine, asks why her father didn't tell the family that he was sad. Were you confident the young actress, Alice Gautier, could pull off this scene when you cast her?

Yes and no. No because you're never really sure, when you have a scene that has that kind of emotional intensity and that's that difficult, how it's going to work out and if the actors are going to be able to pull it off. But yes, in the sense that I had a great deal of confidence in this young actress. I chose her through casting sauvage, so I'm very true to that system of casting. And I worked with her on several scenes that were an improvisation around a scene that I gave her. We had a scene also where all she was asked to do was to concentrate, and I watched her, and I could see how her look changed and how she really entered into herself during this, and she had such immense concentration, I could see that she would act a scene with tremendous authenticity, because she was able to look within herself. Once I saw that, I was confident that she would be able to pull it off. And I think the fact that I was confident in her also helped her, because, a lot of things I never asked her to do, but she just instinctively knew. For example, I never asked her specifically to cry, but she knew, from the confidence I placed in her, what was being called for. And I think this is something really important when you're dealing with actors, to give them that sense that you have confidence in them, and that makes them give more in what they're playing.

Alice Gautier (left) and Manelle Driss (right) star with Louis-Do de Lencquesaing in The Father of My Children.

Some of the scenes with the children are so natural. Did you ever just roll the camera on them, or was everything that was shot scripted?

It's interesting now, when I look at the film, I see the real mixture in the film between what was written and what was reinvented. It's as though these scenes were reinvented. Everything was very carefully scripted, but it was scripted in such a way that it left a lot of room for invention, and I would work with them improvising around the text. It's really this combination of the improvisation and the text that ultimately enriched all of the scenes that are in the film, this way of incorporating both of them. I also spent a lot of time with them, and I took a lot of shots, some of them very long, so that really helped contribute to the natural way in which the scenes were done. And also, I had them work two-at-a-time, with each other, because this way they were able to play off of each other, and that also added more to the scenes. 

What is the footage we see when Grégoire is in the screening room, and there are children on the screen? And then what's the footage when his daughters attend the retrospective?

The first one is a film that is called Versailles, and it was produced by my producer [Philippe Martin]. It's the first film by Pierre Schöller, and one of the reasons why I chose it is because it has the scene with the child. And I thought that it went very well with that emotional moment, because it's sort of the moment when he's passing from watching the film into a dream, and it almost gives you the idea that perhaps, in some way, this is his own childhood that he's seeing on the screen. The fact also that it's silent gives it some of that dream-like quality. And this disturbance between cinema and dream is really captured, I think, by that particular excerpt.

The next one is an excerpt from a film called La route by Darezhan Omirbayev, and the actor who is in it, Jamshed Usmonov, plays the director [Kova Asimov] in my film. He's the one who has the scene with Alice [de Lencquesaing], where they are talking. She says I saw your film in the retrospective, and he says, "Oh no, not this film, my first film is so bad." And she says, "No, it's good." And actually, he's a real director, a very good one.     

U.S. audiences might recognize the actress who plays Clemence, Alice de Lencquesaing, from Summer Hours. Is it coincidence that both films focus on her and her emotions toward the end?

It's half of a coincidence. She's a very good actress. She's also the daughter of Louis-Do, the main actor in the film. And she's somebody that I've known for a long time. And both Olivier and I knew her, and when he was looking for someone for Summer Hours, I suggested that she might be a good choice for him to use. And then, much later on, when I was making my own film, I thought about using her, but, at first, I excluded her because she's the daughter of the main actor, and I thought perhaps it might not be a good idea to have her. But because she has such tremendous maturity, I decided that perhaps she was the best choice. And so, that was how it is. But it is kind of interesting that there is this link between the two films, that she's in both of them.  

What can you tell me about your upcoming film?

The film is called Un amour de jeunesse, which, in English is Goodbye, First Love, and it's a story about a young woman who's really never come to terms and actually mourned for her first love. And the two actors who are in it are very young, and the main actress is the actress who was in Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard, and I've already shot the first scene because it had to have a tree that was blooming in springtime, and so that scene has already been shot.

The Father of My Children currently is screening in Los Angeles and New York and is available On-Demand through August 17.



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