Of The Father of My Children, and the Orphans We Carry

by Lisa Rosman
June 22, 2010 5:58 AM
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For a month people had been telling me that I would “just love” Father of My Children, a phrase I am sure they did not intend as the kiss of death. But others presupposing my taste irked me; if it were that uniform, I thought, there would be no point to my reviewing film. And I was irked by the prospect of the film’s director, Mia Hansen- Løve. Only 28, she first had made a name for herself as a young actress in films directed by her now new-husband, Oliver Assayas, 26 years her senior. But because I respect the film’s publicist—she’s one of the few who only represents films she genuinely admires—and because I was growing embarrassed by my terrible inflexibility, I requested a screener and an interview with Hansen-Løve. When the first sleeve I received contained the wrong DVD and the second arrived only hours before our scheduled interview, I began to wonder if perhaps my cynicism was merited, if the whole endeavor was ill fated.

Then I watched the film.

Loosely based on the life and death of French film producer Humbert Balsan, The Father of My Children’s central character is an independent film company manned by debt-ridden producer Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). At its start, Canvel is a blur of motion, juggling movies in various states of production and postproduction, investors, the bank, his gorgeous and gently understanding wife, his two young children as well as his ennui-struck teenaged daughter. But when he gets pulled over for speeding, he’s informed he’s already amassed so many traffic points that his license is revoked. Though he declares the bus is great (“I can read scripts and met someone I am going to produce!”) it’s clear that Canvel has reached a saturation point. The jig is up.

But the extent of his predicament comes in and out of focus for Canvel, who, like all of the most daring and important producers, leads his professional life only one step ahead of total, unrectifiable chaos. He continues to stammer incessantly into his cell phone even though the only phrases on the other end are now “I need” and “no.” When the bank finally freezes all his accounts, he freezes as well, and his sudden stillness is scary. What comes next might be inevitable given that his very lifeblood seems to pump directly in and out of his company, but shocks nonetheless, and the second act of the film consists of his family and colleagues numbly sifting through the detritus of his company in the wake of his suicide.

This is not an easy movie. It tackles big stuff-- the biggest, really, like the precarious balance between present and future, family and work, business and art, mortality and immortality. But it breathes, nonetheless, and encourages us to do so too even in the wake of the grief it inspires us to recall in our lives. Bathed in sunlight streaming through dusty windows, Father’s depiction of independent film’s messy, demanding sprawl is powerfully understated. Like Canvel himself, it is so grounded in film history that it boasts a startling lightness, like the child who dares to climb the highest tree because he’s sure someone will rescue him—until one day he realizes they won’t.

I hurried to my interview with Mia Hansen-Løve, suddenly anxious to talk with the person who could create such a work. Since I was the first person scheduled to speak with her that day, everyone was still milling about in the publicist's office. Mia herself sat awkwardly, almost as an afterthought, sipping from a cup of black coffee. I sat down and quietly told her how much I liked the movie and we started from there.

What followed was the most moving conversation that I’ve ever had with a filmmaker, which is saying quite a lot since filmmakers are wonderful to talk with, as they tend to be curious about everything. We spoke of the influence of the Nouvelle Vague on her work, and of how Humbert Balsan committed suicide after he agreed to help her make her first feature. (A young male character functions as her stand-in in the film.) We spoke of the spirituality of film and filmmaking, and of how rarely it gets discussed. In fact, I found myself wishing for much more, but since Hansen-Løve had a full day of interviews still looming, I exited back into the day--- reeling, blinking madly in the bright sunlight.

A month later, I finally pulled out the tape recorder to transcribe the interview, almost afraid of reliving the conversation lest it might not prove as transcendent as I’d remembered it. But I found nothing. Nothing at all, save a mocking, barely discernable hiss.

Really, I should have known from my other line of work that this might happen. It always does whenever something steps right out of the time-space continuum. When everything else falls back and all you can hear is the sound of another person’s voice in that Winesburg, Ohio, “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other” way, electronics tend to break down. And certainly the conversation that Mia and I had took us both out of the rush of our two, otherwise divergent lives. Suffice it so say we bore witness to each other’s grief, though hers was receding and mine was yet to come.

For it was when I initially had sat down to transcribe this interview that I suddenly flashed on how much Eleanor Salotto, my first literature professor, my most important mentor, and a true friend of my heart, was going to treasure this film. The email I’d sent her recently had bounced back, and so I googled her in a mindless, mild reverie of procrastination, wondering if she’d left the Southern women’s college where she’d taught for the last decade. The first hit was a local TV spot declaring her a missing person. It took me another ten minutes before I ascertained that a body recovered from Virginia’s James River had been identified from her dental records.

I couldn’t breathe.

I knew then that my interview with Mia must have taken place during the week that her body was found, and I saw suddenly how Eleanor had woven in and out of our whole conversation, as we probed at the topic of mentors, and of how suicide exists in relation to the act of creating art, of writing, of directing.

I’ve never understood suicide. I’m a big believer that if things are so bad you’re willing to kill yourself off, you should consider what else you’d be willing to kill first—like a shitty job or a bad relationship or the part of yourself that you’ve been too afraid to change.

In fact, the only time I ever seriously considered it was in the summer of my 19th year, which resembled too closely Sylvia Plath’s19th year. That was when I realized that no matter how poorly my parents had prepared me for anything resembling life, I could no longer blame anyone but myself for whatever happened next, and promptly fell into a depression so bottomless that my doctors were convinced I had a brain tumor. It was Eleanor who saved me then. She had been my freshman English professor the year before, and when I wrote her to say I wasn’t going to return to school, she called me immediately. In her high, fluting voice, she said, “Listen, you need to come back to school and study something besides your own navel.” She went on tell me that I was going to be ok, because she was going to make sure of it.

And she did. I had my first session with the therapist she found me on the night that I returned to school, and I slowly came back to life under her tutelage, though it took me a year to be able to see colors again or sleep more than three hours at a time. Once a week she carefully phoned me and asked me the right questions, light but pointed. She taught me how to balance a checkbook and how to say thank you and, more importantly, how to say no, thank you. She taught me how to buy a dress, how to eat in a restaurant, how to look people in the eye and how to turn in a paper on time no matter how tumultuous my personal life might have been.

She’d be so cross with me if she knew that I hadn’t finished this piece three weeks after the movie had already opened in New York. When I knew her, Eleanor turned everything in on time, no matter what else was going on in her life. That was the only way to reinvent yourself, she suggested to me, and indeed when I met her family, I understood. It wasn’t that they were awful. She was actually close with her sister, though they had nothing in common but their father, who wore the vacant stare some men acquire as soon as they start their first dead-end job, and the memory of their mother, who’d died when they were far too young. But it was clear Eleanor had come from a family bound to be more alarmed than charmed by a child as inquisitive and sensitive as she must have been.

So only she could raise herself –and she did, tenderly, slowly, methodically. She worked to put herself through college and then taught young children while she studied how to live as an adult separate from her clan’s mortal coils. She was in her mid-30s when she sorted out what she wanted to be when she grew up, and started graduate school shortly after; landed her first tenure-track professor gig in her mid 40s. It was lucky that she radiated a Modigliani beauty whose timelessness made it hard to place her at any age, though it sometimes might have made her feel even more out of step with her peers. (She was 57 when she died but was widely reported as 47, which seemed entirely physically plausible.) Certainly I know it took such hard work to reinvent her wheel that she did not have the energy left to even imagine raising someone else. She was the father—and mother—of her own self as child, and all those roles for one person proved more than enough.

After I got better, I learned that the therapist she found me had also been her therapist, and that she had been saved from a depression even more gripping than the one that had possessed me. But I was young and seeking inspiration rather than fissures in the precious porcelain that was Eleanor and her old-world Italian complexion, so I focused on the implicit happy ending. All I knew was that she had gotten out, finished all the school she needed to attend, lived on her own terms with no family or man to tell her what to do. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

She inhabited lovely, well-appointed spaces decorated with small prints and pink and mauve antiques that were surprisingly luxuriant to sit upon. I adored staying with her during my school breaks, when we slept together chastely beneath her fluffy white duvet on her bed with its ornate wooden carvings. I marveled over the array of lotions and potions polished to a high sheen in her spotless bathroom and studied closely her books, her artwork, her wardrobe. For my college graduation, she cooked a lamb tagine and served me a generous glass of garnet-colored red wine in a large goblet. At my setting at her tiny, heavy table she placed a box so beautifully wrapped that I didn’t want to disturb it, though I felt immeasurable pride and pleasure when I fingered the stiff silk scarf it contained. What I remember most about that evening, though, is the tagine recipe, carefully cut out of a magazine, lined up on the kitchen counter next to another article describing the wine she’d selected for our evening. Even then, my heart filled for the little girl relishing her grown-up dream. It still does.

Over the years, we grew apart. I wanted to raise myself, finally, and it is my fervent belief that we must at least temporarily leave all our guides if we’re to absorb their teachings well enough to navigate on our own. She didn’t approve of where I’d diverged from her path, anyway. Though I loved English literature as much as she did, I’d foresworn graduate school and declared New York my university. She deemed the dramatic fits and starts I called my love life ridiculous and messy, and I suspect felt the same about my apartments-- colorful sprawls of dresses and books and odd bots on every surface, punctuated by the blur of my two sleek cats who leapt wherever and whenever they pleased. Her discomfort was more than evident when she began to stay with me on her breaks, and I found it rude.

The last time she ever stayed with me I was in the process of retiling my kitchen floor, and she declared the apartment uninhabitable. She ran up a long-distance bill that seemed huge on my yoga teacher salary, and listened to classical music too loudly on her Walkman all night in my narrow bed while I struggled to sleep. Finally I bequeathed the apartment to her entirely and didn’t creep back from my boyfriend’s until she’d already left for the airport. My cats were enraged.

Although I don’t regret the chasm that widened between myself and my parents after I finally got off their shabby couch, I regret that I could not release my petty grievances with Eleanor while she was alive. We stayed in touch, especially after she was appointed the director of a university film studies program and I became a film critic, and remained a beacon for me as a single, childless woman, but we were never close again. We slipped from that domestic intimacy into friends who met only once during her visits to New York, and then eventually stopped talking even on the phone. Once she tried to tell me how disappointed she was by the distance that had grown between us, but I responded coolly, refused to be pulled in.

Like Canvel’s filmmakers, I had made her into something she did not ask to be, and then punished her for not living up to it. Yes, she was fussy and, yes, perhaps a greater flexibility might have helped her later, when she began to find the life she’d worked so hard to achieve ultimately disappointing. But she loved me fiercely when I was at my most unlovable, and she raised me the best she could. More to the point, she saved me from myself, and it will haunt me for forever that no one, including me, saved her from herself in turn.

Though Eleanor’s had been ruled an apparent suicide, I wondered at first if it had been murder, which I found I preferred to the idea of her ending her own life. One day mid-semester, she’d simply not appeared at her classes or picked up the friend who’d flown into the local airport to visit her. I might not have seen Eleanor in years but it was inconceivable that she could've transformed so completely from the woman who always honored her commitments, especially to herself. But when I heard back from the few people whom we still knew in common, they’d confirmed a note had eventually been found.

I imagined the velvet and lace finery she must’ve left behind, the pages of notes in her round, precise cursive for her next book of critical theory, the hush of her ordered rooms, the students still living at the vulnerable precipice from which she’d rescued me, and it slayed me. A friend took me out kayaking in Red Hook’s harbor to cheer me up but I found myself shaking as the sun set on its dirty waters, imagining the will and misery required to plunge herself forever into the dark mystery of a river.

I suspect that in the end it was the work that failed Eleanor, as it failed Canvel and Balsan, for it was the work that always lived at the center of her life. Every painting she observed, every film she attended, every meal she enjoyed, every conversation that took place, even the oddly old-fashioned clothing that she managed to find no matter how modern the boutique, always came back to her own world of critical literary theory, where Hitchcock and Zola and postmodernism and the Brontes shimmered together in a hypnotic, spidery gossamer.

Only 2 percent of modern suicides are by drowning, but such deaths were more common during the 18th century, the literary period Eleanor claimed as her academic field. And when the life outside of her studies failed her, I believe she wrote herself into her work, fabricating her own death as the kind of gothic detective fiction that she had written about so cleverly for years. I can imagine her admiring the symmetry of the death, its neatness, and I both love her as the little girl building out her own life one last time, and feel desperately, violently ill.

As Canvel’s (and Balsan’s) family, friends and colleagues must have felt though for opposite reasons. It was their fate to inherit the mess of his company, which he abandoned rather than solved. It is my fate and the fate of everyone who loved Eleanor to inherit the legacy of her unexpressed anger, an anger I now realize I always sensed beneath the precision. But I wasn’t big enough to embrace that little girl who feared that if she didn’t do all her homework exactly the right way she’d lose her ticket out. Instead, I was annoyed by her. She deserved to know she was lovable not despite those qualities but because of them, as they’d helped her survive as long as she did. Instead, I think that we all let that rigidity keep us at arm’s length, even those of us who should have known better, read her better. Wrote her better.

When I watched Father of My Children I was still groggy, nursing my first coffee, combing the film for possible interview questions. Less than ideal circumstances for full surrender, and yet one instance especially caught me.

In it, Canvel and a colleague are listening to a director rant about how they’re cutting corners. After she leaves, his colleague explodes upon him as well: “I work seven hours a week. I get home at 12 am too! I’m killing myself here!” Shoulders slumped, Canvel shuffles into his office and mumbles that he’s going to take a nap, though he’s typically a man on line in every sense of that word. He falls asleep instantly, and the next shot is of a young boy from an earlier, mid-century era, playing wordlessly. For a second, we’re disoriented. Is Canvel dreaming of his lost youth? Is the film itself jumping back in time to his childhood? Then the shot widens to reveal the screen on which the image is projected, and Canvel only half-watching what must be a rough cut or dailies.

It’s a segue that distills so much. How artists invariably transform patrons into the parental figure who’s let them down, whom they scorn and rail against but petition endlessly. Of how Canvel would prefer to be the beloved child rather than the censorious, responsible parent---probably why he made film in the first place. Of how the experience of watching a film sends us back to our childhoods, when when we were still willing to suspend judgment and surrender to awe. Expected to be awed, even. When we still hoped.

And at that instant, a text comes through on the cell Canvel is idly thumbing in the dark: “Accounts frozen.”

I may not recall some of the details of this conversation with Mia Hansen-Løve but I remember the fluting voice not unlike Eleanor’s in which she struggled to communicate in English. With her colorless features and neat but unremarkable sweater, she did not seem like the French husband-stealing vixen I’d imagined though did she seem very French. More like a big thinker-- a perpetual student, in an unaffected, endearing way. I saw then that what she and Assayas shared was a serious, old-soul empathy.

I had asked her if she so frequently worked with kids because she herself had been a child actor, but she responded that it was because of the purity of intent that kids possess. This reminded me of the segue from Canvel's nap, and to my surprise I began to weep while I described the beautiful confusion that it had triggered in me.

“It made me think about how we look to be redeemed by art, especially film, and how it sometimes works but as a means, not an end,” I said through my tears and she began to weep as well, nodding, as did her translator who had seen the film only the night before.

At that moment, the publicist reminded us gently that many others were waiting to speak to Mia, and so I collected my things in a daze not unlike Canvel's, except mine was the daze borne of the joy art can help us attain. It was the joy of communion, both with others and with our true, timeless selves. Which is what, ultimately, this brilliant film is about—that connection to ourselves and between each other that art can make possible.

And what remains when what saved us becomes that which fails us most.

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  • lisa Rosman | September 4, 2010 10:44 AMReply

    Thanks for your words about Eleanor and this piece, friends. Vince, I remember well Eleanor discussing you and how much she valued your friendship with her. I saw Single Man finally this last weekend and was moved--deeply--by what I felt Eleanor might have seen in it at that point in her life. It made me sad but it also made me feel connected to her--and I am grateful that your words made that possible. Please contact me privately through Facebook if you ever feel inspired.

  • Vince | August 15, 2010 2:45 AMReply

    I found your essay to be such a subtle, elegant, unsentimental, and brutally frank meditation on the life and death of Eleanor Salotto--more particularly, on how, in your words, "suicide exists in relation to the act of creating art, of writing, of directing." I went to grad school with Eleanor and saw her (always in cities) during summer, holidays, and at MLA conventions. I was fortunate to have spent time with her this last Christmas, and we had the chance to see A Single Man, a film I thought Eleanor, given her own writings on Vertigo, would admire. While she was always deeply moved by film and opera, in retrospect it now seems that her sitting a bit longer after the credits rolled and her calling from the road to leave a message as to how much the film had impressed her were forms of writing/weaving similar to those you discern in her work. Those moments and your words sent me to Sebald's The Emigrants, particularly the section on Paul Bereyter, a teacher, who ends his life. The section concludes with a character haunted by the experience of having missed signs: "The disquiet I experienced because of the momentary failure to see what was meant--I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death--lasted only a short time, and passed over me like a shadow of a bird in flight."

  • A. Marina Fournier | July 1, 2010 7:14 AMReply

    The words about your professor and your relationship with her set me to remembering similar experience in my own life.

    My college advisor & prof became my friend after I graduated. In 1998, she was one of 4 people who kept me tied to life while I had my first suicidal depression (I was diagnosed much later as having mild bipolar disorder--not that you'd know that from my depressions!). We stayed friends even after we moved to other towns.
    For a while, she was nomadic. I think the last time I saw her was at a conference in honor of a colleague's retirement. He had also been one of my profs.
    We emailed sporadically after that. At some point I stopped being able to reach her NCal location by phone. There was email, and calls to her office, but due to my depression of the time, I didn't realize how long it had been since I heard from her.
    About a year after her death, I found that she'd died, intentionally not letting the word out--she had cancer of the bone in her jaw, and Mr. Ebert took the risk she did not. I keened in such a way that I scared dogs in nearby houses. I didn't know where her brother might be, whether her mother was still alive, and the one colleague who'd know this--the one who'd retired--was out of the country.

    I wish I'd been able to at least talk to Karen one last time, if not see her and reassure her of my love for her & my gratitude for all she'd done for me. I can only hope her spirit hears me now and then as I think of her. I hope Eleanor has been able to know your enduring love, if difficult at times, for her.

    This was an amazing essay. I follow Roger Ebert on Twitter, and he directed us to this essay & review.

  • Greg | July 1, 2010 7:10 AMReply

    A great essay. Time for me to see this film.

  • Grace Wang | July 1, 2010 4:15 AMReply

    You devastate me and redeem me with your words. Thank you so much.

  • litdreamer | July 1, 2010 2:27 AMReply

    Followed Ebert's Tweet over her, and man, was he right about this post! Great stuff. Makes me want to see the film, AND add you to my bogroll. :-)

  • Toni J | June 23, 2010 3:02 AMReply

    So lovely. I'm glad for and humbled by the story of your relationship with your prof - to parent other people's children is so fraught! How brave of both of you to take that on. I am sad for your loss and grateful for the art that transcends and helps us make meaning of our losses. Thank you for sharing so much.