September 2010

Arts & Letters

Father knows worst

By Luke Davies
Taika Waititi's ‘Boy’ and Mia Hansen-Love’s ‘Father of My Children’

A man perches awkwardly on the edge of a single bed talking to his two sons, Boy (James Rolleston) and Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu). He has just returned home from seven years in prison doing time for robbing a service station. “You know this used to be my room?” he asks. Boy, 11, who only vaguely remembers his father and who has, in his absence, inflated him to hero status, grins wide-eyed. Rocky, six, eyes him with suspicion. “Ah, well,” says the father, as if magnanimously, “you can still use it. I’ll sleep in the garage with me mates. Not a problem.” The clipped vowels, the upwards inflection on ‘mates’: to an Australian ear, the strong New Zealand accent is quite funny.

This father, Alamein, is played by the talented Taika Waititi, who also wrote and directed Boy (in national release), a delightful coming-of-age tale that has become the highest grossing New Zealand film of all time. Waititi directed the loopy Eagle vs Shark (2007), which made – like its antecedent, Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – an art form of finding deftness amid the stilted and awkward.

It’s 1984 in a sleepy Maori community on North Island’s Bay of Plenty, and Boy dreams of his father’s glorious home-coming from time spent as a master carver, deep-sea diver, rugby captain and war hero. Boy has the usual problems of an 11-year-old: how to deal with bullying and baiting in the classroom, how to rein in his temper and how to win Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), the girl he has a crush on. (Schoolyard advice from one of his friends: “Here’s my trick. I tell all the girls that I’m afraid of undies, then when they want me to go away, they show me their undies.”) His own great obsession is Michael Jackson – “Last month he put out an album called Thriller. It sold a gazillion copies, and now he lives in a castle with a snake and a monkey.” – and, in his fantasies, Boy sometimes confuses Jackson with his father. Younger brother Rocky spends his time at the local cemetery, communing with their dead mother; she died giving birth to him and he believes that he killed her.

Alamein, the real child in the film, lives in the biggest fantasy world of all. After turning up with his two thug mates, Juju and Chuppa (Pana Hema Taylor and Cohen Holloway), he informs Boy he wants to be called Shogun, and Boy happily becomes Little Shogun. Shogun is quite an inept tough guy: his attempt with Juju and Chuppa to form the Crazy Horses, a kind of biker gang without bikes but with colours and bandanas and a clubhouse out in the garage, looks more like children’s play-acting than any potential threat to the Hells Angels. Shogun’s hope is that he’ll find the robbery money he buried in the paddock seven years earlier and now can’t locate.

Boy, ever the optimist, is happy to help search for the “buried treasure”. He explains to Rocky what he’ll do if he finds the riches: “Buy a house in the city. Buy a big car. Buy some dolphins. Probably dress up in tuxedos all the time.” It’s the third point, the dolphins, that is the comic kicker here. It’s infused with innocence – the kind of world view still possible for an 11-year-old but lost shortly thereafter. It is, in miniature, what the film is overall: slightly off-piste in terms of traditional notions of revelation and punchline. Waititi drops little bombs into the action at the oddest moments. The result is that his work never becomes so gentle that it loses its intentionally off-balanced comic quality. And yet it never becomes so off balance that it doesn’t remain light on its feet.

A different kind of imbalance appears in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children (in national release). Halfway through the film a shocking event changes both its focus and our sense of what is logically possible from that moment. We’re not given any time to experience resentment, though. The film’s achievement is that, after its momentous shift, we can accept the second structural incarnation, which is just as engrossing as the first. And it doesn’t feel like two separate films, either; it’s an uncommon, and uncommonly good, exploration of two phases of a family’s life.

Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) runs Moon Films, a busy French production house. He lives for cinema, passionately running his business via his mobile phone from his office, his car, the streets of Paris, and at all times of the day and night. It’s a non-stop hustle, and yet Grégoire is charming, full of life and seemingly able to flow along despite the stress of it all. His wife, Sylvia (Chiari Caselli), and their daughters, Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing, the actor’s real daughter), Valentine (Alice Gautier) and Billie (Manelle Driss), swarm around him, a hive of love and activity. The adoration is mutual in all directions. Perhaps Grégoire is a little too wrapped up in his work for Sylvia’s liking, but he can’t wait to get home to his family, whether they are in their Paris apartment or their house in the country.

There’s one small problem: as Sylvia reminds him, Grégoire may have brought many movies to life and made many directors famous, but his company is in serious financial trouble. He’s been juggling his accounts for years, and it’s now getting precarious; when cheques hit the ground, they’ll certainly bounce. Grégoire is €4 million in the red, but he refuses, as a matter of pride, to sell his back catalogue, which in any case he has already borrowed money against. Soon his assets could be frozen. Even his placid assistant of 15 years is starting to revolt. On top of this, there’s a disorganised Korean film crew in town, for whom Grégoire is financially responsible, as well as Stig Janson, a “difficult” Swedish director, going over budget hundreds of kilometres away in the boondocks of Sweden. Right now, film production seems like nothing more than extended crisis-management. At this point, the film appears set to explore the question of whether Grégoire can avoid bankruptcy and keep his mojo.

The bankruptcy aspect is a central plot device, but Hansen-Løve doesn’t allow herself to be overly constrained by it. She draws on autobiographical, and other real, events, including her relationship as a younger film-maker with the film producer Humbert Balsan, who at one stage was to produce her first feature, All is Forgiven (2007). Father of My Children is a film-lover’s film and it vividly captures some of the collective frenzy and the personal drive inherent to the film-making process. But it’s not just a film about films. Rather, the richness of the exploration of the lives of its female characters gives it a quiet vibrancy.

Alice de Lencquesaing as Clémence, on the cusp of adulthood, is superb. She is barely noticeable early in the film, yet she later becomes one of its central characters. Her significance subtly increases as she becomes an emotional anchor for her younger sisters, and as she embarks on a tentative romantic exploration with a young writer–director her father has discovered. Her discovery that her father has a son from a previous relationship is the only soap-opera moment in the film, and the only part that feels unnecessary.

Hansen-Løve has also coaxed from the two youngest actors extraordinarily naturalistic and sophisticated performances. Directing child actors in films is more often than not a matter of keeping performances as simple as possible, and of cutting around the bad, the stiff and the wooden. Gautier and Driss are simply excellent, capturing something of the joyful disorder of childhood. At other times, they are perfectly at home with the stillness and pain required for their roles. Grégoire keeps himself busy not merely to ignore the ‘tightening screws’, but also to keep that same pain and stillness at bay. When a brief moment finally comes, after a run of frenetic activity, and Grégoire decides to draw the blinds and take a nap, it is charged and poignant, as if he were floating in space.

Hansen-Løve, however, doesn’t let the film float free. For her, love lingers in domesticity – in Billie and Valentine splashing in the water, or in them performing a play as Grégoire, Sylvia and Clémence watch, intertwined on the couch. When the domesticity is fractured, love remains in the forms of sheer hope and sheer striving. Given the sophistication of Father of My Children, and its deft balancing of the frailties and strengths of its protagonists, it is remarkable that Hansen-Løve is not yet 30.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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