'All Is Forgiven' Review: Mia Hansen-Løve's Delicate Debut Is More Than Just A Taste Of Things To Come

It’s a strangely topsy-turvy experience, to come to a director’s first film 14 years, six further features, an Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize (“Father of my Children“), and a Berlin Silver Bear for Best Director (“Things To Come“) after she made it. And perhaps it’s an inevitably compromised – or at least altered – experience too: “All is Forgiven” can’t help but be viewed now through the prism of Mia Hansen-Løve‘s subsequent career, a retrospective perspective made even more unavoidable by the retrospection of her most recent feature “Bergman Island,” which is playing in theaters at the same time that Metrograph is giving her debut a long-overdue US release. 

READ MORE: ‘Bergman Island’: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Breezy Relationship Auto-Fiction Is A Wisp Of A Film [Cannes Review]

But it’s also a testament to the standalone strength of this loose yet intimate family drama that while certain hallmarks are already present – marital breakdown, detours into bourgeois domestic detail, a can’t-live-with-them-can’t-shoot-them view of romantic relationships, white people – “All is Forgiven” is also quite singular in the Hansen-Løeuvre. There’s a slightly scuffed, raw edge to filmmaking that would soon become notable for its precision and polish, and there’s also, below the seemingly casual way that days and events and interludes are loosely strung together like differently shaped beads on a chain, a faint but discernible current of urgency, of mysteries that need solving, of sins that need absolving, of life as a set of dangling ellipses that… make no sense until the sentence is picked back up again. It’s quite a relief to identify this kind of energy and curiosity for those of us who found “Bergman Island” wispy to the point of evanescence. 

As the film begins, dissipated, directionless Frenchman Victor (a soulful turn from Paul Blain) is living in Vienna with his briskly Austrian wife Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich) and their cheeky six-year-old moppet Pamela (Victoire Rousseau). Victor is a doting but distracted father – mostly distracted, we quickly learn, by a drug habit he does little to conceal from his wife, even when it leads to infidelity and unexplained absences from the family home. Their relationship continues to deteriorate even after the family moves to Paris in an effort to start fresh (it’s one of the virtues of Hansen-Løve’s oblique, eliding approach to time that she can imply that this is only the latest in a series of such attempts without having to labor the point). In fact, Victor’s drinking and drug use escalates, leading to verbal and then physical abuse, after which he goes awol for a prolonged period. He moves in with his new heroin-addict girlfriend Gisele, while a distraught Annette makes tearful phone calls to him begging him to come home to her. 

READ MORE: Director Mia Hansen-Løve Talks ‘Bergman Island,’ Recasting Midshoot & Shooting The Film In 2 Parts [Interview]

The script, co written by Hansen-Løve and Clementine Schaeffer and switching as easily between French and German as the characters themselves do, could easily have become a litany of complaints against Victor, the undeniably wasted wastrel who is simply bad news to all of the women in his lazily charismatic orbit. But as the title suggests, the film is forgiving toward this dictionary definition of a deadbeat dad – almost to a fault: while Victor’s psychology is the mystery the movie spends much of its runtime patiently, coolly teasing out, Annette gets relatively short shrift by comparison. Of the two, she is the less sympathetically portrayed, despite being the more responsible parent and the more giving spouse. But then, this is not really her story, as the movie makes clear when, after a character overdoses and Annette finally kicks Victor to the curb, we cut forward 11 years, neatly excising the entire period of Pamela’s life for which her father has been absent. 

Pamela is now a stunning 17-year-old, played by Victoire’s older sister Constance Rousseau, whose nystagmus – involuntary eye movement – gives the older Pamela a slightly unearthly, shifting presence. She is living with her mother, stepfather and two brothers in Paris again, when she is contacted by Victor’s long-suffering sister, who wants to mend the rift between father and daughter. Against Annette’s express wishes, Victor, now clean and sober and making ends meet as a writer, is anxious to reconnect with his daughter, and Pamela, who is rather refreshingly portrayed as a stable, self-confident young woman, surprisingly un-fucked-up by paternal abandonment issues, agrees, albeit hesitantly.

The stakes do not get any higher than that, yet Hansen-Løve’s respect for her characters makes her detached yet invested interest in their everyday lives feel gently momentous. Often there’s a lightly improvised feel to the dialogues, and even to DoP Pascal Auffray‘s handheld camera movements, which give an airy, Rohmerian quality to the interactions. At other times, the Hansen-Løve of “Eden” can be glimpsed in an extended scene set in a club, which serves no clear narrative purpose except to bring us a little closer into Pamela’s world. And there are shades of “Goodbye First Love” and “Things to Come” in the various family gatherings and idyllic countryside vacations that punctuate the characters’ lives and at which both nothing and everything happens – often to the incongruous yet somehow entirely appropriate accompaniment of a Scottish folk ballad on the eclectic soundtrack. It might not be as fully realized as her later output, nor pack quite the emotional wallop of her very best work, but “All is Forgiven” still impresses with a sad-eyed wisdom far beyond its director’s then-25 years, and with a generous awareness of the bigness of the world beyond the frame that one hopes she has not lost at 40. [B]

“All is Forgiven” is playing now in select theaters.