Debut director Mia Hansen-Love turns seemingly random slices from the life of a disintegrating family unit into a remarkably graceful, natural film about what it is to be human. Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of this hopeful parable of failure is the way casting, acting, script, and camerawork conspire to usher us into an immediately believable world which is observed with a painterly eye yet never seems staged.
Originally produced by the late, great Humbert Balsan, then taken over after his death by Philippe Martin and David Thion’s Les Films Pelleas, Hansen-Love’s debut is too unconventional in structure and downbeat in theme – though not in approach – to break out of the arthouse niche, but it should garner consensus both in France (where it will be released theatrically by sales company Pyramide’s distribution arm) and in select overseas territories – particularly continental Europe.
The film opens in media res, observing the life of French lounger and aspiring poet Victor (Paul Blain), his petite but together Austrian partner Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich) and their six-year old daughter Pamela (Victoire Rousseau) in Vienna, at a time when the first fractures are already apparent. Victor is an affectionate father, but he has a heroin problem which leads him to opt out of family life most afternoons. Moving back to Paris – where Victor is on his own ground and Annette is the foreigner – just makes things worse, as Victor starts spending whole nights away from home and soon starts an affair of sorts with fellow addict Gisele (Olivia Ross).
Hansen-Love gives time to scenes that have no immediate dramatic point, at least in the three-act textbooks; the payoff for the patient viewer is an unmediated, close-up sense of lives observed that is a rare gift even in more mature directors. Captioned chapter breaks move the action forward in time; the greatest leap comes two-thirds of the way in, after Annette has finally decided to leave Victor. Suddenly we are seeing things from Pamela’s point of view, 11 years after she last saw her father. (Casting Victoire’s teenage sister Constance Rousseau as her older self is further proof of the director’s commitment to naturalism.)
The material sounds bleak, but it’s dealt with in an unexploitative mode that stresses the ordinariness of Victor’s problem and the desperate affection that binds the family together. Part of this delicacy has to do with Pascal Auffray’s formal, lucid, light-filled photography, which has something in common with Annette’s job – she’s curator of 19th-century decorative art at the Musee d’Orsay (one of the film’s backers).
There’s a sense, at times, that casting and composition are too pretty for the story being told – but this is held in check by Hansen-Love’s assured way with her uniformly excellent ensemble cast. And in the end, it’s the director’s old-fashioned take on a contemporary story, with its symphonic structure and kind but reticent narrative eye, that is one of the most intriguing things about this convincing debut.
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Subtitles:English, French S&M (sub/idx)