Fathers who are complexly damaging from the midst of being also gentle and loving, was the theme of the only two films I could see on Friday. (I was required to be at an all day meeting.) In Dorothee van den Berghe's My Queen Karo, the father is a 1970s free love revolutionary, who drags his wife and child from Belgium to live in a commune in Amsterdam "where anything is possible". Mia Hansen-Love's lovely Le Pere de mes Enfants, features a father/film producer who loves his children but can't climb out of a professional world that is closing in on him. Both men adore their children, lavishing affection and kind attention in ways any child could dream of. And in both films, the children end up utterly abandoned.
My Queen Karo does an amazing job of evoking the spirit of the 70s with its hangover 60s radical emotions. As someone who lived through this era and was indelibly marked by artists who lived in this milieu I could not believe how truthful it felt. Young Karo lives with her mother and father and about a dozen other people as squatters in an upstairs flat of doubtful quality, even if they were paying rent for it. No walls are aloud and everyone is privy to everyone else's world. Karo's mother is a Belgian seamstress who makes costumes for an opera company. The fact that she earns a living and secretly pays the Landlord rent is a source of great fear and moral uncertainty for young Karo, who knows her father would be devastated. When Dad brings home another woman to join their life, a woman he is clearly nuts about, Karo's intellectual dilemmas are deepened by her own emotional pain and fear. The little hedgehog she found in their immigration travels and has adopted as a pet becomes a symbol of her fear and discontent. Putting it in an icetray with water, she puts it in the freezer to stay protected "until things are better".
There are so many gorgeous images in this film that capture the spirit of childhood while remaining anchored in the confusing world of adults. Karo rides behind her mother on her bicycle, arms around her waist, enjoying the play of sunlight on her face and closing her eyes, then nuzzling into her mother's back to smell her. I was reminded of how relatively easy it is for children to find what they need, however they can. A friendship with a downstairs tenant leads Karo to start swimming, a venture she takes on with her own sense of discipline and commitment, never bothered by the distances and tasks of learning or the fierce encouragement of her coach. Sometimes when she looks up, the commune family are there to cheer her on, but on the day of her big diploma test, it is a struggle to free herself from the chaos of their declining lives to get there on time. Her expressive face as she swings freely inside the house (no-walls does have some advantages!) points to the moments of happiness that no other child could dream of. In the film's final shot, Karo uses her swimming skills to dive in to the canal and rescue her mother's costume mannequin, alive with colourful 19th century silks and bodices. The underwater image of her 'rescuing' the life sized form just as she was taught to in her class, captured how important it is to serve the artist in one's self.
Le Pere de mes Enfants is a richly told and deeply moving story of one family's decline in the face of an attempt by one man to be just exactly that kind of artist. Gregoire is the kind of producer that the art house film industry owes its life to. Committed to making movies that develop important filmmakers and thematic ideas, his small production house slowly pays the price and his world sinks ever more deeply into debt, even as his excitement and enthusiasm for projects he has invested in lives on unabaited. In the first half of this beautiful movie, we follow him around his daily life in and out of the office, getting all of the hints of both his passion and his impending pain. His family life is rich and wonderful: his gorgeous wife and three beautiful girls take vacations of meaning, to explore Romanesque chapels or see the colours of the mosaics of Ravenna. A very gentle Christian theme weaves its way through these scenes. In some ways Gregoire is giving his family the very tools they will need to survive his death before he himself even understands fully that he must die. When the awful event has occurred, we watch the devastating impact it has on these very people, and his wife's attempt to keep his legacy alive and somehow save his work is a brilliant testament to the various ways devotion works both during and after our involvement with loved ones. The performances are all breathtaking. Watching the journey of pain lived out by the eldest daughter (who had seemed the least interested in her Dad) was particularly poignant for me (and the actors are real-life father and daughter Louis-Do and Alice de Lencquesaing. Chiara Caselli has a lovely understated presence in this film as Sylvia, his wife. There is a scene in which she is being driven to the set of one of the films after Gregoire's death. The driver, a woman, is talking on a cell phone in Swedish with tension and anger about things we never hear translated. Meanwhile, Sylvia stares out the window in her own agony, eyes uncontrollably filling. The many arguments we saw earlier in the film among the married couple are a source of pain to her now for different reasons, even as she is being reminded of them.
Having read that the movie was based on the life of prolific French producer Humbert Balsan, I found myself wondering who the 'real life' equivalents of some of the characters were. I had already tapped 'Stig', a Swedish auteur who is described by another producer in the film as a 'psychopath', as likely to be a version of Danish helmer Lars von Trier, and that was before I had read that Balsan, who was found dead in his office in 2005, happened to be producing Lars von Trier's Mandalay at the time. Like Balsan, Mia Hanson-Love started out as an actor.
These two gorgeous movies continue a theme for me so far of wonderful new films by female directors: an accident, not a constructed choice. But a happy one.