Monday, March 11, 2013


Had I known this was loosely based on the life of Humbert Balsan, the French film producer & occasional actor who committed suicide back in 2005, I would have rushed to see this a few years back when it played at IFC. Anyone can appreciate, understand or enjoy The Father Of My Children as its about depression & workaholism which are two things that affect just about everyone in some way or another, but you kinda have to know who Balsan was and what he did in order to really feel the full impact of this film. He indirectly affected the lives of so many cinephiles, like myself, who appreciate seeing indie, foreign, art house & abstract cinema on the big screen. Hes been described as a warrior & pioneer in the world of art house cinema when it came to getting financing for films that most people would consider pointless because they were "artsy" or couldn't generate money. I first learned about Balsan while reading up on Lars Von Trier's Manderlay back in 2006 (one of the last films he produced). After clicking a few external links and doing a little bit of research I came to find out that he not only produced films for Claire Denis (The Intruder) & James Ivory (Jefferson In Paris) but he also maintained a relationship with filmmakers like Robert Bresson & Sam Fuller. I recently discovered he also produced films for Jacques Rivette & Jean-Louis Trintignant (co-star of Haneke's Amour). Then come to find out I'd been looking at him on my TV screen for years as an actor, most notably in Bresson's Lancelot Du Lac, without even knowing it...
Balsan (right) in Bresson's Lancelot Du Lac (1974)
His life is a testament to how amazing cinema can be and how connected & intertwined it often is which makes me sad because I have this feeling he didn't realize all the things he accomplished. His life was not that much different than that of a guy like Tony Wilson (co-founder of Factory records who signed groups like Joy Division and played a major role in the Manchester music scene). The Father Of My Children's existence is more important than some may realize. Had this film not been made many people wouldn't know how important of a figure Balsan was. His legacy would have been downplayed and only those close to him would know the kind of person he was. Not that there's anything wrong with that but he seemed like a great human being, from what I've read, whose story deserves to be told.

The more you read about cinema the more you learn about the great & selfless things that sometimes go on behind the scenes. The movie industry is obviously known for being cut throat & shady but there are some great little behind the scenes stories that many people don't know about like; Wim Wenders giving Jim Jarmusch film so he could make Stranger Than Paradise in to a feature length film, Monty Montgomery (the cowboy in Mulholland Drive) downplaying his role in the creation of Twin Peaks, John Cassavetes setting up a meeting with Gordon Parks and some movie executives so Parks could make The Learning Tree (Cassavetes never took credit for helping Parks get his foot in the door) or Shirley Clarke lending John Cassavetes her camera equipment so he could make his first film. The event's in Humbert Balsan's life were not that much different than the examples I just gave you. Movie producers sometimes get a bad wrap as being money hungry control freaks without any understanding about the art of cinema. You hear horror stories of producers re-editing films behind a directors back or screwing people over for money but you don't always hear about the Ted Hopes, Bingham Rays & Humbert Balsans.
There is a scene in The Father Of My Children where the main character; Gregoire, based on Balsan, is urged to sell his entire back catalog of films in order to get money he desperately needs to stay afloat yet he replies: its a non-question. I wont sell my catalog. losing it would mean I did all this for nothing. Moments later hes asked why he works with a particular artsy filmmaker who has a reputation for being difficult (I'm pretty sure is supposed to be loosely based on Lars Von Trier) Gregoire casually replies: I like his films. Everyone turned him down.
That's the beauty about the main character in this film - Hes a movie producer with integrity who actually loves cinema and isn't just in it for the money.

Balsan apparently suffered from depression and I'm sure his production company going under didn't help things. His life makes you think of so many struggling independent artists (not just in film) who give so much of themselves to their craft and get nothing or very little in return. That could drain someone after a while and make them wanna give up. You start to question what you do and wonder if you're putting all this energy in to something for nothing. Imagine if you were in Humbert Balsan's shoes - you've been a movie producer for 25 years and all you have to show for is bankruptcy and a failing production company. That's enough to make anyone depressed. It goes without saying that quite a few art house, foreign & indie filmmakers come from wealthy families so weather or not their films make money is irrelevant. But there are those struggling filmmakers out there who do need to make a living off of a craft they love that may not be "profitable" or interesting to mainstream audiences (like many of the films Balsan produced). I don't know about you all but its pretty damn heartbreaking when a talented artist cant make a living off of what their good at.
I don't know what kind of relationship director Mia Hansen-Love had with Balsan or the impact he had on her life but it must have been pretty special because her sophomore film essentially plays out like a sweet love letter to the late producer. Maybe they didn't know each other at all and Hansen is just giving praise to a producer who made it possible for her to make the kind of films she makes. In The Father Of My Children Louis-Do de Lencqueasing plays Gregoire - a workaholic movie producer and family man. He's smooth, calm and soft spoken. Unlike other workaholic characters we often see in movies Gregoire is actually a good father and tries his best to be there for his wife and children (one of which is played by Lencqueasing's real life daughter Alice). Due to his smooth & laid back demeanor you'd have no idea that he's suffering from depression mostly due to the fact that his films are no longer successful and he has major financial problems closing in on him (his habit for producing abstract & artsy films that don't make any money has put him in the hole). The Father Of My Children has a pretty calm atmosphere but as the film progresses we start to feel the pressure that's falling on Gregoire and we see him slowly come apart. Gregoire's wife (played by Chiara Caselli) is the unsung hero of this story in my opinion. When he starts to show his depression and becomes vulnerable its Gregoire's wife who tries to hold him up and keep everything together (especially in the 2nd half of the film). Everyone gives a great performance and I honestly believe Alice Lencqueasing (who plays Gregoire's oldest daughter) is going to be a hell of an actress when she gets older.

The Father Of My Children is also about the relationship between fathers & daughters to some extent (the main character in the film has three daughters). This seemed to be a trend in art house cinema a couple of years ago. Between 2009 & 2010 art house/indie cinema gave us quite a few great portrayals of good fathers (or fathers who at least try) on the big screen. All three stories are pretty different but at the same time 35 Shots Of Rum, Somewhere & The Father Of My Children all have a similar minimalist ambiance and show a realistic relationship between a dad and their young daughter. This trend hasn't completely taken over cinema yet but recent stuff like Pariah (as we discussed in my recent write-up on black characters in modern film) is an indication that fathers aren't being painted as these one-dimensional, uncaring hard asses as much these days. Even though Gregoire suffers from depression, he tries his best to instill real happiness in his moody eldest daughter.
Real life father & daughter (Louis & Alice Lencqueasing) in The Father Of My Children
The Father Of My Children has quite a few elements of Olivier Assayas' more personal style of filmmaking (this makes sense given that Assayas is somewhat of a mentor to Mia Hansen-Love). The chaotic behind the scenes atmosphere of Irma Vep, the ensemble cast of actors from Late August, Early September and the story of an upper-class family dealing with the aftermath of a death in the family (and all the legal stuff that follows) that's in Summer Hours (which coincidentally co-stars Alice Lencueasing) runs all throughout the film. Even the ending has an eerie similarity to the ending of Summer Hours. This is one of those rare recent works were I'd use the word touching to best describe it and not feel corny or insecure. For a film about depression & heartache there's plenty of sweet & happy moments all throughout.

Much like Scarlet Diva, The Father Of My Children is yet another film that shares a spiritual connection with Bernard Rose's brilliant Ivan's XTC (both films are personal, semi-autobiographical stories about key background figures in the movie industry that pushed themselves too hard who die sad deaths long before their time). I don't care how many times I've mentioned this film - I'm gonna find an audience for it and get it rediscovered if its the last thing I do!

The Father Of My Children isn't just strictly a love letter/dedication to Humbert Balsan. Its about the importance of family, coming of age, the beauty of film as well as the bumps and other legal issues that go into the filmmaking process that people don't often think about.


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