Father of My Children, Mia Hansen-Løve, 110 mins, (12A)

An absolute gem of French cinema
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The Independent Culture

As well as being an exceptionally poignant family drama, the new French film Father of My Children offers a sobering lesson: no one in their right mind should consider being an independent film producer.

This striking feature, by young writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve, is inspired by the story of eminent French producer Humbert Balsan, but if you've never heard of him, that doesn't matter. It may even be an advantage not to know about Balsan, because then you won't expect the startling left turn that the film takes about half-way through. Mark you, this is not a left turn of the sort that devious film-makers like to throw at you. It's the sort that life itself can pull when you are least prepared.

Louis-Do de Lencquesaing plays Grégoire Canvel, a Paris-based producer dedicated to auteur cinema at its most exalted and uncommercial. Grégoire is forever staking his all – money, health, sanity – to pursue his passion, and can't seem to exist without a full stack of plates to spin and a full queue of creditors to sweet-talk.

Despite all this, Grégoire manages to find time to lark around at home with his two youngest daughters (a marvellously winning young duo, Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss), although his wife, Sylvia (Chiara Caselli), and teenage daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing) are manifestly losing patience with him. Still, Grégoire swaggers on with aristocratic insouciance until the crunch comes – and then the film changes gear very strikingly.

Hansen-Løve, formerly a critic, here offers one of French cinema's most insightful commentaries on itself. At the same time, she has made an insightful, eminently sane film about family relationships. Her great achievement is to give us an emotionally charged drama, without targeting our tear ducts in the expected way: the astutely economical Hansen-Løve has an unfailing sense of when to leave out the scenes that lesser films would ruthlessly maximise.

The acting is terrific, miraculously relaxed and natural in the family scenes – and Hansen-Løve never makes too big a deal of the real-life father-daughter casting of Louis-Do and Alice de Lencquesaing as Grégoire and Clémence.

An immensely assured and mature second film, Father of My Children is one of those modest, downplayed French dramas that, to hear them described, promise no big deal at all, but prove immensely rich and rewarding.

It is a modest film in the very best way, and one of the absolute gems of recent French cinema.