This lovely, very personal and abjectly honest documentary from director Josh Appignanesi – in fact made jointly with his partner Devorah Baum – could as well be entitled A Matter of Life and Death. It is Appignanesi’s moment-by-moment record of his life and feelings on preparing to become a father for the first time in his late thirties, a film embarked on at least partly because of his need to somehow prove himself a breadwinner, a provider, and end an agonising period of professional inactivity. (Before this, Appignanesi had made the features Song of Songs and The Infidel.)
Yet the paradox that all men feel in this situation is that inactivity is all you have: relentless, inescapable, almost existential inactivity, an inability to do anything that bears comparison to what is happening within your partner’s body. It’s more than a home movie, more a cine memoir, and there are some wonderful visual compositions. It is really funny and rueful, but then the pregnancy becomes complicated: they have twins, of which one is viable and one almost certainly not. Josh himself realises he has some growing up to do, and the obvious irony-punchline of him being the real baby now has to be jettisoned.
Josh turns the camera on himself as he slopes about the streets, hangs around in the kitchen, slumps on the bus. His face is a picture. He is always hilariously bleary, unshaven, zonked: a kind of drinkless hangover of anxiety, and his agony is very funny. He seems permanently on the verge of some melodramatic breakdown that never fully arrives. All too obviously, he fears that fatherhood will change everything and some terrible catastrophe of emasculation and imprisonment is on its way. He’s sort of right and sort of not. He is garrulous and emotional, though his partner Devorah – an author and academic – is together where he is untogether, but they are together and that is the important thing.
The film brings in an army of supporting characters from the director’s well connected social life; there are glimpses of dinner parties, soirees and gatherings, and Appignanesi is able to get impromptu interviews with John Berger, Antony Gormley and Slavoj Žižek, who is reliably droll and unsentimental on the subject of fatherhood. There’s possibly a bit of name-dropping going on here, but Appignanesi nicely manages the balance between this public world and private fear. This film shows that he could be a really good director of a metropolitan comedy, like Noah Baumbach or Agnès Jaoui. Appignanesi speaks to his mother and father, whose separation when he was five is another source of personal unease, and these conversations are themselves funny and poignant.
The birth, when it comes, is a uniquely difficult mix of emotions, and Appignanesi manages them on screen with honesty and decorum. This is a very engaging and thoroughly likable piece of work.