Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Better Dad Than Dead

In September, 1963 I purchased a theater ticket purely on the basis of a play's title. The fact that it starred the great British actress Hermione Gingold, was directed by Jerome Robbins, and was the first play written by Arthur Kopit didn't matter to me at all.

Although it only ran for only 47 performances at the Morosco Theatre, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition marked the Broadway debut of a 23-year-old actor named Sam Waterston. Even though I didn't understand any of Kopit's script, the presence of several dancing bellboys made it a rollicking addition to the Theatre of the Absurd. Its three main characters were:
  • Madame Rosepettle, a flamboyant widow who travels around the world with her husband's corpse (which she routinely hangs in the closets of her hotel rooms). In order to save her son from the evils of the outside world, Madame keeps him locked up in his room on the premise that doing so will help keep his skin as fresh as the newly-fallen snow.
  • Jonathan, Madame Rosepettle's basket case of a son, who suffers from a severe stutter and (when he is not babbling on and on about his collections of stamps, coins, and books) tends to the feeding of Madame Rosepettle's venus flytrap plants.
  • Rosalie, a voluptuous young tart who attempts to seduce Jonathan.
By the time the final curtain comes down:
  • The corpse of Jonathan's father has fallen out of the closet and onto the bed where Rosalie lies, waiting to seduce the confused young man.
  • The venus flytrap has been hacked to pieces by Jonathan.
  • After Madame Rosepettle's pet piranha eats the ax Jonathan used to kill the venus flytrap, Jonathan proceeds to kill the piranha.
  • In a final fit of rage, Jonathan strangles Rosalie to death.
So much for traditional family values!

Could Jonathan have retained his sanity with a strong father figure in his life? That's the kind of intriguing, testosterone-driven theorem that has inspired many a screenplay. In today's world of sperm donors, deadbeat dads, and baby daddies, it's often hard to imagine a father who stays involved in his children's lives.

How well a father holds up emotionally when a firm, commanding presence is needed depends on the man's internal compass. The fathers in two recent films found themselves caught in desperate circumstances.

One chose a bullet. The other reached out for help.

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It really doesn't count as a spoiler to discuss the fact that the protagonist in Father of My Children commits suicide midway through the film. Based on the true story of what happened to French film producer Humbert Balsan, this adaptation of his predicament by Mia Hansen-Love has a personal connection in its back story.

Hansen-Love met Balsan in early 2004 (he hung himself in his office in February of 2005). Her character is transformed into Arthur Malkavian (Igor Hansen-Love), an aspiring filmmaker whom Grégoire Canvel (Louis Do de Lencquaisang) would like to help, if only his life wasn't falling apart.

Like Balsan, Canvel's professional life is rapidly crumbling before his very eyes. He is deeply in debt to the film lab he has used for many years. His production company, Moon Films, is on the verge of bankruptcy. To make matters worse, a director whose film he is underwriting just cashed a large check prematurely.

In the first half of the film, the audience witnesses Canvel desperately trying to buy time while jockeying between cell phones. Despite the best efforts of his assistants, Valérie (Sandrine Dumas) and Bérénice (Dominique Frot), there is no way to prevent his film production company from being forced to liquidate.

When Grégoire spends the weekend at his country home with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) and his three daughters -- Clémence (Alice de Lencquaisang), Valentine (Alice Gautier), and Billie (Manelle Driss) -- he is a happy family man who adores his children. But when the pressure becomes too much he kills himself, leaving Sylvia to pick up the mess he has left in his wake.

A happy moment with the Canvel family

As director Mia Hansen-Love recalls:
"[Humbert] wanted to produce my first film. His enthusiasm and trust were decisive for me in All Is Forgiven. I didn't write this movie out of gratitude, but because of Humbert Balsan's personality. He had an exceptional warmth, elegance, and aura. His energy, passion for films, and sensitivity -- which I took to be an invincible inner beauty -- are what made me write the movie.

Of course, there is also his suicide. The feelings of failure and despair that it reveals are overwhelming, but that doesn't replace the rest. It doesn't become the only truth. I wanted the film to express the paradox of contradictory movements within the same person, the conflict that can occur between light and darkness, strength and vulnerability, the desire to live and the urge to die.

Alice Gautier, Louis Do de Lencquaisang, and Manelle Driss

It occurred to me that a film about a producer could be a film about work, commitment, love and life. For a producer, chasing after funding can become alienating and lead to a dilemma (I'm referring here to producers who aim to produce the work of artists). On the one hand, there's a noble, ambitious vision of their trade; and on the other, huge loneliness, and economic and moral suffocation due to the constant pressure that comes from taking risks in a context that is relatively unfavorable economically and culturally."
The filmmaker chose to schedule Canvel's suicide exactly midway through her film in order to show how the producer's wife, children, and support staff all cope with the tragedy. Sylvia has little time for grieving as she tries to comfort her children and figure out how to liquidate her husband's assets and shut down his film production company. Although helped by one of Canvel's oldest friends, Serge (Eric Elmosnino), and given some kind words about her late husband by one of the more eccentric artists he supported (Magne Brekke), Sylvia must figure out how to provide for her daughters and plan for the future. As Hanson-Love explains:
"From the very beginning, I had this idea that Grégoire would die in the middle of the film. It’s not a gimmick. It’s not something I’ve done because it was a cool idea or whatever. To me it has to do with deep questions: What is it that remains from a man who has built so much, after his death? How does his soul survive? Through his personal relationships and links to his family? Or does it survive through the work he’s done?
Louis Do Lencquaisang as Grégoire Canvel

To me, this question is crucial and appears very clearly in the last scene of the film when the girls go to the office and the mother says, 'His soul will survive through the films' and the daughters say, 'Not only through his films, but through us also.' This question is very interesting to me, and the title of the film has this ambiguity. To me, the 'childen' are the films, or the filmmakers. The first part of the film is really more like an action film; it’s got a lot of speed and hyperactivity and energy. The second part really deals with mourning. And for some people, it’s a very abrupt change. Yet, as the film comes to a conclusion, it brings these two halves back together."
An interesting subplot involves the discovery by Grégoire's teenage daughter, Clémence, that her father had once had a son with someone other than her mother. Father Of My Children ends on a bittersweet note as Sylvia and her three daughters drive through Paris in a taxicab.

As a teary-eyed Clémence stares out the window, unsure of whether the family will move to Italy or remain in Paris, a recording of Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera dominates the film's end. Familiar to people who grew up in the 1950s, the lyrics (by Ray Evans) read as follows:
"When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother: What will I be?
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me:
Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.
What will be, will be.

When I was young, I fell in love.
I asked my sweetheart: What lies ahead?
Will we have rainbows day after day?
Here's what my sweetheart said:
Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.
What will be, will be.

Now I have children of my own.
They ask their mother: What will I be?
Will I be handsome? Will I be rich?
I tell them tenderly:
Que sera, sera! Whatever will be, will be.
The future's not ours to see. Que sera, sera.
What will be, will be."
Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) with one of her daughters

With a running time of 110 minutes, Father Of My Children doesn't ever drag or lose steam. It simply lays out the pressures in one man's life while accepting the fact that -- despite an extremely supportive family and professional staff -- Grégoire could no longer envision a future. The result? Life goes on without him. Here's the trailer:

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While subtitles make Father Of My Children easy to understand, the same cannot be said about Looking For Eric. Although spoken in English, the heavy Manchester accents, some muffled sound, and the tendency of a key actor to mumble his lines conspire to make it nearly impossible to understand large stretches of dialogue.

As the film opens, the audience sees the protagonist driving in the wrong direction around a traffic rotary in the midst of some kind of personal crisis. Director Ken Loach explains:
"Eric Bishop is an intelligent man who suffers from panic attacks. It's really interfered with his ability to stay in a relationship. His response is to just put his head in the sand, go out with the lads, go to the games, have a drink, and not deal with it.
The consequence is his first marriage broke down. He then married someone else who developed a drinking problem. She had two sons by different fathers. When she finally went off the rails, he was left with these two lads.
Because, at heart, he's a very generous person, when they were younger he had a reasonable relationship with them. But as they've become teenagers, they do what other teenagers do: if they see a weakness, they exploit it. They destroy him. He's left with a big house that he can't manage and, of course, chaos breeds chaos. He can barely hold his job together."
Steve Evets as Eric Bishop

It's surprising that Looking For Eric, although written for the screen, unravels like a three-act play. In the first third, the audience sees Eric barely able to cope at work, unhinged by a chance encounter with his ex-wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop), and being taken for granted by his teenage sons, Ryan and Jess. In the second act, Eric gets inspired by his soccer hero, Eric Cantona, who magically appears in his bedroom to give him some coach-like advice aimed at inspiring Eric to repair his rapidly deteriorating home situation.

Eric Bishop gets advice from his idol, Eric Cantona

While the two Erics wax nostalgic about some great goals scored when Cantona was an international star playing for the Manchester United Football Club, Cantona tries to give his student a basic plan for developng enough confidence to be able to talk to Lily and get his eldest stepson, Ryan (Gerard Kearns), out of trouble. Cantona's best line?
"I like this woman -- she has balls."
Steve Evets and Eric Cantona in training

The third and final act involves Eric's revenge on the thug who has threatened his family and caused his home to be raided by armed guards during what should have been a peaceful dinner. Inspired to seek out help from his fellow soccer fans, Eric and his chums charter three buses and, with all of them wearing Eric Cantona masks, proceed to humiliate the young thug in an orgy of violence and macho retaliation. John Henshaw (whose character in the film is named Meatballs) describes Looking For Eric as follows:
"Without getting preachy, society's broken down now. We don't have the extended family, with aunties and uncles and grandmas and all the rest of it looking after the kids like they did in the old days. Everybody keeps themselves to themselves. It's very rare to see a gang of lads together. I think the last bastions of communal friendship are the workplace and the football -- the game. They bring people together.
This movie is about mates mucking together. It's working class men making the effort for one of their mates. The primary instinct is 'If you kick him, you kick us' (which is great)."
What's not so great are the film's financial prospects with American audiences. Although Cantona's huge following abroad will, no doubt, bring in strong box office receipts from European markets, American audiences are not that heavily into soccer (as opposed to American football). There may be far fewer who are devoted fans of Eric Cantona. Most won't be able to understand a good deal of what is said in the film.

It's obvious from the press materials that screenwriter Paul Laverty, director Ken Loach, and their palindromic star, Steve Evets, are all huge soccer fans who have idolized Cantona. Perhaps blinded by their devotion to a sports hero (and their enthusiasm for the sport), they have made a film that might be a bit too authentic.

Having cast Looking For Eric primarily with actors from Manchester, their characters' accents may be correct and their enthusiasm for the sport palpable. But what most American audiences will see is a thinly-veiled attempt to build a story around the availability of a sports idol.

In Loach's eyes:
"The movie is about friendship and about coming to terms with who you are. It's a film against individualism (we're stronger as a gang than we are on our own). You can be pretentious about this, but it is about the solidarity of friends which is epitomized in a crowd of football supporters (but also where you work, and the people you work alongside).

Although that seems an almost trite observation, it's still not the spirit of the age. Or it hasn't been the spirit of the age for the last 30 years, where people are your competitors, not your comrades."
Loach's film includes numerous archival clips of Cantona scoring seemingly impossible goals during his heyday as a star athlete. Actors Stefan Gumbs (Jess) and Lucy-Jo Hudson (Sam) do some nice work as two of Eric's children. Stephanie Bishop shines as Eric's ex-wife Lily, a youngish grandmother who is trying to keep her life on a stable footing.

How much enjoyment you'll get from Looking For Eric depends, in large part, on how big a soccer fan you are. Here's the trailer:

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