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Film

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘The Truth’

By Harry Windsor
The Palme D’Or winner on working with the iconic Catherine Deneuve in his first film set outside Japan

Catherine Deneuve in The Truth

Though he’s one of the most highly regarded filmmakers in the world, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda claims not to be much of a cinephile. But he also claims never to have missed a film starring belle de jour herself, Catherine Deneuve, the 76-year-old French icon who delights in toying with her image in Kore-eda’s first non-Japanese film, The Truth (in cinemas December 26). Sitting in the Hotel Excelsior in Venice – The Truth opened the Venice Film Festival in late August – the director admits that, without his leading lady, he might not have made the film at all.

Deneuve plays Fabienne, an amusingly tart legend of the silver screen who lives in what appears to be a country manor with a large garden – only it’s plonked in the middle of Paris, cut off from the outside world by the wall of a prison next door. (Deneuve vetoed other potential locations outside the metropolis, Kore-eda has said.) Juliette Binoche plays her daughter, Lumir, a screenwriter visiting from New York with her husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a TV actor who hardly merits the name, at least according to his mother-in-law. The occasion is the publication of Fabienne’s predictably unreliable memoir, which outrages Lumir by presenting its author as the perfect doting mother when, in truth, Fabienne’s career always took precedence over her family.

Interrogating the idea of family is Kore-eda’s bread and butter, from 1995’s Maborosi (his first feature after four documentaries) to last year’s Shoplifters, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar. Shoplifters was about a makeshift family unit, and characters in The Truth continually circle back to the abstract figure of Sarah, an actress who came up with Fabienne and was something of a surrogate mother to Lumir before her burgeoning career was cut short when she died young. Complicating things further, Deneuve’s own sister, actor Françoise Dorléac – one of the stars of Polanski’s 1966 film Cul-de-sac – was killed in a car accident at the age of 25. 

Though he admits that Deneuve directly inspired the character of Fabienne, Kore-eda dutifully points out key differences between the two. For one thing, the 57-year-old filmmaker says, Deneuve has a great relationship with her own daughter. “She also said she wouldn’t be seen dead in a leopard-print coat like the one Fabienne wears. That’s an extremely country look.” Any reservations the director had about working with an actress of Deneuve’s stature dissipated after conversations with his friend, the French auteur François Ozon, who told him that “although many people say that Catherine is a very capricious person, that’s not the case; she does her best to create a good movie. And it was actually true.”

Deneuve is the best thing about the film, which otherwise feels like a bit of a europudding, culminating in a dance scene in a public square that looks like it escaped from a Lasse Hallström movie. Working for the first time in a language he doesn’t speak, Kore-eda had his script translated into French, and the director admits he ran into issues with the language. “Usually in my Japanese scripts there is a lack of subjects – as in subject/object. I don’t write them. And I leave the timeline – past, present – ambiguous on purpose. But in French, of course, that was not possible. So we had to put things back that made it less ambiguous.” Cutting the film presented similar challenges, with the director (who edits his own films) and a translator working hand in hand, subtitling as they went.

Kore-eda communicated via letters with the French cast and crew, and was impressed with their technical ability. Shooting for eight hours a day, he was able to capture roughly the same amount of footage as he does in Japan – where shoot-days can run to a whopping 16 hours. The result is a film with the high gloss you’d expect from a Palace release dated for Boxing Day; more glamorous and incident-filled than the Tokyo native’s earlier films, but less acute, as well. (Three of them, Our Little Sister, After the Storm and the particularly devastating Nobody Knows, are currently streaming on SBS On Demand.)

After fulfilling her publisher’s publicity demands, Fabienne starts working on a new film, Memories of My Mother, whose hot young star, Manon (Manon Clavel), is frequently compared to Sarah. But Sarah herself never becomes more than a spectre, and just why she’s so significant is left dangling. Kore-eda opted to avoid flashbacks, he says, and instead what we get is a sea of whispers. The prison wall provides a neat visual echo of the way each character is entombed by their memories, but we don’t get access to those memories, so it’s hard to feel their weight. In that respect Manon is the perfect embodiment of the film itself: pretty to look at but not quite the real McCoy.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

Catherine Deneuve in The Truth

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