The Father of My Children

April 30, 2012 4 Comments

Sometimes the films we ought to see do not fall into our laps or avail themselves on numerous multiplex screens….”The Father of My Children,” directed by Mia Hansen Love, is such a film.   It never was screened in the Detroit Metro area, but is available via Netflix and Amazon…..so, you might ask, why go to such efforts when there are so many other films readily available?

This poignant little French film asks us to accompany Gregoire Canvel, a charming and successful film producer as his magical life spirals downward out of control.   Swamped with dire financial disasters that threaten his career and his family (an equally charming wife and three daughters), he opts to opt out…ending his life precipitously mid-film leaving us and his bewildered and grieving family to pick up the broken pieces.

Why?  Is he a cruel narcissist or a victim of a rapacious system?  The film is based on the life of Humbert Balsam, a well-known French producer who killed himself in 2005.

Mia Hansen Love casts a sensitive look at Gregoire and although some will loathe and despise him, others will identify with his hopelessness and despair.  The film ends with a familiar song which captures many of the feelings, while leaving ample room for interpretation.  The Parisian street scenes are as seductive to us as they were to Gregoire. Why do such things have to happen?  Do they HAVE to happen?  Can one be a good father and a suicidal one?  What happens to the family after such a tragedy?  The film does not judge, but instead invites us in to feel…this is a Must See Movie.

Jolyn Wagner

Must See Movie of the Week
4 Comments to “The Father of My Children”
  1. Robert MacDonell says:

    I believe that our major transitions in life begin not with a new beginning, but with endings.
    So I’ll start at the end.
    At the end of The Father of My Children we hear Doris Day singing her signature song Que sera, sera (Whatever shall be, shall be) as the credits roll. Was this meant to be ironic, or not? In light of the events in the last half of the film I must say it struck me as being so. When the film ended, the family’s grief and suffering was anything but over. They did not strike me as moving on in hopeful bliss. I think they have a good chance of working it through, but overcoming a trauma like that is not an event, or an organized procedure to perform so that when you’re done with the procedure you’ve put it all behind you. Instead, it’s a process. One that takes different people on different paths over different time frames. Our clinician friends tell me there are some people who never get over it entirely.

    I’m not as convinced as some may be that Gregoire was what we might call a ‘good enough’ father. He was certainly was not the worst kind. He was ‘charming’, but I see little of substance in his relationships that go much beyond charming. His decisions were all, ultimately, self-centered. He put on a good performance, but like many narcissists he was self absorbed, manipulative, and secretive. He may have been charming in his ‘performance’ with his family, but it seemed like he was rarely fully present when he was with them. Mostly, he was a very reckless man. He was reckless in business; reckless in his relationships; and committed the most reckless of acts in his suicide. Reckless in this case meaning that he acted without regard for consequences of his actions on others.

    Mostly I want here to comment on Gregoire’s suicide in the context of his life as we see it depicted in the film. I think we would agree that we should not condemn a person for suicide (i.e., blame the victim). But neither should we absolve them. Not condemning them is not the same as saying what he did was right, or even marginally acceptable. In my view he was reckless in the extreme in inflicting the trauma of his suicide on his family. I do not resolve him of responsibility in this regard. He had opportunities to make choices along the way so that it might have turned out otherwise in so many ways, and at so many times. Perhaps not in his most irrational moment when he did it, but before: a month before, or a year before, or a decade before. To think otherwise one would have to be a determinist and that’s another discussion for another day.
    Now it is left to his family to sort out the endings. What has ended for them and what has not? How will they get through the transition? And how, ultimately, will they create a new beginning?

    Bob MacDonell

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    Well, Bob, I think I disagree with almost everything you say!

    (1) I agree that overcoming the trauma will take time and is a process, but I see every reason to be hopeful. The children had loving parents, both of them, and the young girls already show signs of overcoming their grief, as evidenced in their interactions with Gregoire’s co-workers when they say good-bye. So no reason to think that the signing of “Que sera, sera?” is ironic.

    (2) I think Gregoire was an EXCELLENT father! He took genuine delight in his play with his younger daughters, and they with him. They wanted to make sure that he was there to see their play, and the play was about an newly discovered mammal (a combination of an anteater, platypus, giraffe, and hippopotamus!) called a Gregoire! He disciplined them when needed, and he taught them about history and symbolism and what pronoun to use in the subject position of a sentence! He committed suicide, and that made them suffer, just as they would have had he died as a fireman trying to save a kitten from being burned to death. Aristotle famously said, “One swallow does not make a spring, nor one sunny day a summer.” I’d add, “Nor one trauma inducing act a bad dad.”

    There are many acceptable combinations of devotion to family and calling. Gregoire exemplified one such acceptable balance. He was not self-absorbed; he loved both his wife and his children deeply and genuinely, as well as his work.

    Gregoire was not a reckless man. Reckless men take big risks, but that is a necessary, not a sufficient condition of recklessness. To be reckless you must take UNREASONABLE risks. Gregoire did not do that, anymore than you would if you drove your father rapidly to the hospital to save his life. His suicide was desperate, not reckless. It did put his family at risk of being unable to recover from the resultant trauma, but, again, that is not a sufficient condition of being reckless.

    Nor was he a narcissist. Narcissists are concerned with themselves, but that is not sufficient for being a narcissist, only necessary. You must also be unconcerned with others, and Gregoire was concerned with his family, his films, and those who acted in them (he borrowed money to pay the crew in Sweden).

    While he was charming, he was not manipulative. Some people are naturally charming, but that does not mean that they turn it off and on to get their way. That is required for them to be manipulative in the use of their charm, and Gregoire did not turn his charm off and on to get his way. He just was charming!

    We often can look back on our lives and see mistakes we made along the way for which we have regrets, sometimes remorse. “The Sea Inside” is a film I show my students. In it, the main character becomes a quadriplegic as a result of a diving accident when he was young. It was a mistake to dive into the shallow water. He has regrets; he wants to commit suicide. If he had not gone to the sea shore that day, he would not have dived into the water. If he had not dived into the water, he would not now be a quadriplegic. If he were not now a quadriplegic, he would not want to end his life. Yes, so? If Gregoire had not made many earlier choices, he would not now be in a situation where he wants to commit suicide. But he did make those choices, and no one of them need have been irrational. Perhaps his suicide now IS irrational, but not because of rational choices he made earlier. And I think we should sympathize with him in his situation, just as we should with the protagonist in “The Sea Inside,” whose family selfishly(?) wants him to continue living against his wishes.

  3. Robert MacDonell says:

    Bruce,

    In your reply to my observation that Gregory’s behavior is driven by his narcissistic tendencies, you were unconvinced that he is a ‘narcissist’. You back up your claim with examples of how good a father he was by noting that he spent some time with his children; that his interactions with his children were kind and loving in nature; and that his intense focus on his business is not unlike other successful people who, despite their success, are not ‘narcissists’.

    I think our differences on the narcissism issue stem from that old problem of colleagues with different backgrounds thinking they are talking to one another, when they are really talking past one another.

    In retrospect I did not do a good job of explaining myself on the issue of narcissism. And so, a little more from me on my understanding of narcissism.

    Narcissus
    As we know, Narcissus, was a character in Greek mythology, who was very handsome. So handsome in fact that all the women who saw him fell in love with him. Echo, a nymph, loved Narcissus and pursued him but was snubbed by him. She was so hurt by this that she shriveled up until all that was left of her was her voice, and could repeat back just a few of the most recent words she heard. One day Narcissus went to drink from a pool of water and saw a beautiful image in the pool. He had never seen himself before and, not realizing who it was, fell in love with the image of himself. Over time, he realized he had fallen in love with his own image. Realizing he could never embrace this image, he fell into despair and committed suicide.

    Narissistic Traits
    We are all self absorbed to some degree. It’s healthy. It promotes our self confidence and self esteem; so it is a good thing. What separates healthy self absorption from what we colloquially call narcissism is mostly a matter of degree. Some people become so self-absorbed that it begins to interfere with normal, day to day functioning. This is called pathological narcissism and it occurs when self absorption becomes so intense it precludes the possibility of realizing a more balanced, true self. Narcissists cannot accept themselves as they are so they invest vast amounts of energy into creating and sustaining a virtual self image that they hold out there for others to see. Thereby they avoid working through the real issues we all face in creating a balanced self.

    Narcissism as a ‘Self ‘Deficit
    Narcissism has been described as a deficit of self (Heinz Kohut, Analysis of the Self). It is as if something is missing from their inner world. They feel themselves as empty and lacking. Their pathology may be difficult to discern in some narcissists because they do not fit the stereotype of a boastful, overly confident, and not infrequently malicious individual. For example, the Gordon Gekko character in the movie Wall Street; or Donald Trumpp in real life. In reality, their behavior is a bid for constant attention and validation from others because of their lack of confidence. Such needs are felt by narcissists as self deficits. Since such deficits are inconsistent with their self image and create anxiety that they cannot tolerate internally and so project outward onto others in the form of criticism. In fact, they are really being critical of themselves. Nothing ever meets the narcissist’s high standards or satisfies them so others are relentlessly criticized and maligned. In more passive manifestations of this same lack of self confidence others are still the target of narcissists as they attempt to rid themselves of anxiety, but instead of criticizing others narcissists drop them from their lives or avoid them as if these others have ceased to exist. Only a narcissist would have sufficient lack of feeling for others (Gregory) as to consider suicide an acceptable way out despite its impact on them (his family). Gregory finally ran out of energy chasing/maintaining the image he created for himself when his business bubble burst. Since his image of himself was so largely invested in his work, when the bubble burst, he felt as if he was left with nothing; that he was nothing. His lack of true investment in his family relationships did not permit him (in his mind, not in reality) the belief that his family was there for him as a counterweight to choosing suicide as the only way out of his intolerable anxiety (desperation). If his life was more balanced, his relationships would have been an avenue to better coping, and starting over again with his family as support. But his investment was too heavily unbalanced in favor of his false self image which is so characteristic of pathological narcissism.

    Just as pathological narcissists experience nothing but their own false image, they often do not experience the true self of others either. As result many are not empathetic. They deny their feelings. Some have described the denial of feeling as a critical trait of narcissism. Narcissists attempt to deny hurt and erect a fascade of being cool, calm, strong, independent, etc. This fascade persists until the image cracks. The cracks can become manifest as the depression so often evident in those who seek therapy. Many however do not seek therapy as it is anathema to their image. They feel they must bear the weight of the world on their shoulders and that not to do so is just more evidence of their deficits adding further insult to their deficit ridden image. Little mystery then that suicide is highest among those suffering from depression.

    In relationships, narcissist’s appear unable (like Gregory), or unwilling to truly engage in relationships, except fleetingly or superficially (like Gregory). Partners of narcissists often feel that the nurturing they supply is not reciprocated and the partner feels the life being sucked out of them by trying to provide for the needs of the narcissist. Echo is an extreme example in this regard.

    This is my understanding of narcissism. As you observed in your reply, Gregory was not an arrogant or mean spirited man. I agree. As result, I think it may be hard for some to recognize his narcissism. I believe, however, that it is quite clear that Gregory suffered from pathological narcissism which, in the absence of therapy, acted as a precursor to his acute episode of depression, which in turn led to his suicide.

    Like Narcissus, Gregory was in the end unable to embrace the image of himself, so he fell into despair and committed suicide.

  4. Bruce Russell says:

    Thanks for clarifying what you mean by “narcissist.” I agree that there is always a danger that people will talk past each other if they are not clear about the concepts that are central to the conversation.

    You say, “Only a narcissist would have sufficient lack of feeling for others (Gregory) as to consider suicide an acceptable way out despite its impact on them (his family.” Ramon Sampedro in “The Sea Inside” commits suicide against the wishes of his family, and he was clearly NOT a narcissist (he was a quadriplegic). People who are not narcissists can commit suicide because they are in despair and so are unable at the time to think of the impact on others, and others, like Ramon, have just endured too much suffering and frustration to want to go on living. There are many reasons why people commit suicide, some good, some not good, but not all of them are narcissists, not even all of them that have families and young children.

    In personal correspondence, you said that a narcissist lacks empathy. But I don’t think that Gregory does lack empathy. He seems to have empathy with his wife who wants him to go on vacation, but he is torn by his other obligations. He seems to have empathy with the woman who is working with the director in Sweden. And he seems to have empathy for his oldest daughter, with whom he seems to have a better relation than she has with her mother. In any case, I don’t think you can take his committing suicide as evidence that he lacks empathy, for there are other reasons why he takes his own life. You seem to implicitly argue: (1) if he commits suicide, he lacks empathy; (2) if he lacks empathy, he is a narcissist; (3) he commits suicide; (4)therefore, he is a narcissist. I think (1) is false for the reasons I gave above. I also think (2) is false, because sociopaths lack empathy but need not be narcissists. But never mind that, if (1) is false, your argument does not establish your conclusion.

    I think the correct definition of “narcissist” is: someone who loves himself so much that he/she always puts his/her interests before the interests of others. I do not think that this is true of Gregory. Further, I think such a person can have empathy with others; it just isn’t strong enough to motivate him to act on their behalf if their interests conflict with his.

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