The Japanese master of family observation, Hirokazu Kore-eda, heads to Paris for his English language debut.
hen a bad mother approaches old age and enters the phase of life when one spends more time cataloguing past memories than creating new ones, she’s faced with a choice. She can reckon with the legacy of negligence she’s left behind, that of infidelity and absentee parenting and recreational cruelty in the guise of tough love. Or she can do what Catherine Deneuve’s declining screen queen Fabienne does in the latest film from Hirokazu Kore-eda (the director’s first outside of his native Japan), and retreat into self-spun fictions revising her history into a more palatable, flattering version of itself.
Fabienne’s a dyed-in-the-wool actress in a cheekily Deneuvian mold, and approaches penning her memoirs like she’s creating the role of a lifetime. The passages recalling afternoons spent picking up her smiling daughter from school stick in the craw of the now-adult Lumir (Juliette Binoche), who remembers things going down a bit differently. The film begins as she and her family (charismatic alcoholic husband Ethan Hawke and moppet daughter Clémentine Grenier) join Fabienne at her home in the shadow of a looming, bluntly symbolic prison complex to commemorate the release of this book, but she brings an in-depth line-edit with her, complete with Post-It notes marking the most objectionable selections. The time has come to shake the branches of the family tree a bit and see what might fall out.
Kore-eda gives this process a symbolic counterpoint in Fabienne’s supposed comeback, on a Drake Doremus-grade sci-fi drama that casts her as daughter to a hot young It Girl (Manon Clavel) rendered ageless by outer space. All the intermingling of relationships through concentric levels of metatext lays the track for a dissection of self enrolled in Clouds of Sils Maria’s highly cerebral school of thought. Fabienne and Lumir sort through resentments and regrets in discursive conversations with a palpable sense of Frenchness uncommon for a visiting filmmaker. They snipe and micro-aggress like sparring partners with an intimate knowledge of one another’s weak points, an inappropriately fluffy score passing off this mature battle of wills as one of those talky Gallic dramedies. Subplots involving the precocious-yet-not-too-precocious youngster and Fabienne’s ex-husband (Roger Van Hool) ultimately weigh the film down by making it lighter.
Kore-eda’s specific technique, honed and perfected over the past few years with After the Storm and then the Cannes-winning Shoplifters, involves sucker-punching viewers in the final half-hour with emotional stakes ratcheted up into a newly intense register. He does the same here to no diminished effect, as Fabienne grapples with the harsh, flickering light of self-awareness. Watching her obstinate haughtiness start to crumble in the face of the finite time she has left on this Earth borders on the devastating to those familiar with Deneuve’s career trajectory, doubly so when a viewer considers her recent choice to dig her heels in on a mindset soon to be a thing of the past.
Foreign auteurs often go astray as they make their way to the West, and it’s a relief that Kore-eda’s approach to delicate family dynamics spans the language barrier, though hardly a surprise. The building blocks of his oeuvre — compassion, vulnerability, connection once hardened guards have been let down — have been smartly fitted to suit the sui generis talents of the film’s headlining legends, playing up their spikier wits. But even those defenses fall and give way to the heart-piercing pearl of truth at the center of both Kore-eda’s filmography and the bond between two warring, loving women: the people closest to us are worth the pain they cause.
Published 7 Sep 2019
By Amy Bowker
This understated 2004 drama is a perfect entry point for the Japanese director’s work.
The Japanese writer/director discusses the political implications of his Palme d’Or-winning drama Shoplifters.