Even so, it’s supremely odd to see Kore-eda working here in French, with Catherine Deneuve as his star. Very few Japanese directors work outside their own language and culture. Very few French divas would see much point in taking such a risk, either. And yet here we are, Deneuve playing Fabienne, an ageing star of French cinema, and Kore-eda telling a story that appears to have little connection to his past work.
But wait, there’s more, in terms of degree of difficulty. Ethan Hawke plays a second-rate American TV actor named Hank, doing his scenes in English. Juliette Binoche, as Lumir, daughter of Fabienne, wife of Hank, does her scenes in both languages. And to cap it off, there’s also a bilingual child, Clementine Grenier, playing their daughter. All the film needs is a dog – and there he is, scampering around under Deneuve’s expensively shod feet.
More imperious than a queen, Fabienne is also a selfish cow with no maternal instincts.
The film is as odd as it sounds – not in a bad way, but with some caveats. Kore-eda makes it wryly funny, primarily by having Deneuve play to our expectations of how a grande-dame of the French cinema might behave, and by suggesting it is all autobiographical (Fabienne is Deneuve’s middle name). More imperious than a queen, Fabienne is also a selfish cow with no maternal instincts. She lies constantly, uses people as servants, dismisses all rivals. She is beloved only of those who do not know her.
Lumir decamped some years earlier to America to become a scriptwriter. She arrives back a few days after the publication of her mother’s memoir, which she had been promised she could read before publication. They have never had an easy relationship because Lumir always felt unloved. The book is the last straw. Fabienne happily admits her shortcomings. Career was everything, she says. I wanted to be a great actress and I am, so it was worth it: get over it. The book is not accurate, she agrees, because the truth is so dull. Her refusal to lie makes Fabienne forgivable, but only just. That’s ultimately why you want someone like Deneuve in the role. She can make this woman seem real and human, not simply monstrous.
Most of these scenes take place in Fabienne’s substantial Parisian house, in winter. We see almost nothing of the streets, except to show us that the house is behind a prison – another joke. Fabienne is shooting a film with a young director, a sci-fi story in which her character has spent years in space, to arrest the ageing process. When she returns to Earth, her daughter has grown old, but not Fabienne. Manon Clavel plays an up-and-coming actress with huge talent. Fabienne can hardly bear to look at her.
This texture is rich, as we expect from Kore-eda, and it’s delivered without a sign of jitters. On the other hand, there is no feeling of jeopardy either, nor of the emotional grandeur that characterises his Japanese work. It feels like a chamber piece because it is: a chance for the director to observe an ocean-going star in all her glory, to see what he can do as her captain. Kore-eda, at university, wanted to be a novelist. That is part of what makes his Japanese films so rich, but here, it feels a little underweight. There’s not much at stake between these privileged few. Death was always in the corner in his Japanese films. It takes a holiday here.