THE TRUTH (La Verite, France, 2020)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely every movie lover will savor the chance to watch two of France’s screen titans go at each other as combative mother and daughter. Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche don’t disappoint in this latest from writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, who was previously Oscar nominated for SHOPLIFTERS (2018).

Ms. Deneuve stars as Fabienne Dangeville, an aging French Oscar winning actress who has recently published her memoir. To celebrate the book, her daughter Lumir (Ms. Binoche) is coming with her family for a visit. Husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a self-admitted second rate actor, and their daughter Charlotte (newcomer Clementine Grenier) is awfully cute and meeting her grandmother for the first time. Lumir is a scriptwriter, and harbors less-than-favorable childhood memories of dear old mom.

The personalities of mother and daughter are pretty easy to ascertain. Fabienne admits “I’d rather be a bad mother, a bad friend, and a good actress.” She’s a petty and sometimes nasty woman, who’s quite self-aware. Lumir is the type that has critiqued her mother’s memoir with post-it notes throughout, and calls her out on the false claims of being a doting mother. Most of the movie deals with memories, honesty, and family relationships. It’s not just Lumir who is bothered by book. Fabienne’s long time handler Luc (French screen veteran Alain Libolt) reacts strongly to being omitted entirely, as if he never existed.

Fabienne waves off the criticisms by claiming she’s an actress, so the naked truth is not expected … whereas interesting stories are.  The film opens with Fabienne being interviewed by a journalist (Laurent Capelutto, “Black Spot”), and between this interview and what we learn of the memoir, we can’t help but chuckle at some of the real life similarities. First, Ms. Deneuve’s real middle name is Fabienne, and there are teases of her multiple lovers and “almost” movie with Alfred Hitchcock.

A large portion of the film is spent on the film-within-the-film that Fabienne is working on. It’s a science-fiction film (from a short story written by Ken Liu) that focuses on an unusual and difficult mother-daughter relationship. Lumir spots the obvious symmetry, but we are never really sure if Fabienne does, as she’s so busy firing barbs at the lead actress played by rising star Manon Lenoir (the first feature for Manon Clavel). For the elder Fabienne, acting has always been about being a star, so she struggles seeing the younger actress take a role she herself would have embodied 50 years prior.

Other supporting work comes from Christian Crahay as Jacques, Fabienne’s live-in cook (and more); Roger Van Hool as Pierre (man, not turtle) as Lumir’s father who is listed as deceased in the book; and Ludivine Sagnier (SWIMMING POOL, 2003) who plays a younger version of Fabienne’s character in the film-within-the-film. One key character we never actually see is Sarah, a deceased woman who was a friend and fellow actress to Fabienne, and a kind of surrogate mother to Lumir when she was a young girl. Sarah’s memory still hovers over the lives of Fabienne and Lumir, and may be at the heart of any possible reconciliation. Koreeda is a terrific director, and watching the performances here is quite entertaining. We do have the feeling that the script could have gone deeper emotionally had it not attempted to tackle so much. Additionally, many scenes felt like they were begging for more biting comedy than what was there. This is mostly played straight, which leaves Ms. Deneuve and Ms. Binoche to carry the load – a burden they handle quite capably.

watch the trailer:


SHOPLIFTERS (2018, Manbiki kazoku, Japan)

January 3, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. We typically think of family as blood relatives, those affiliated by marriage or adoption, and those funky cousins (sometimes ‘removed’) that, according to the family tree, are supposedly related to us. Expert Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, 2013) presents a story that will have you questioning whether the strongest connection is blood, heart, or money.

We first witness ‘father’ Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky) and adolescent ‘son’ Shota (Jyo Kairi) in a well-coordinated shoplifting maneuver at the local grocery store. On the way home they stumble across a shivering child, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who has been seemingly abandoned by her parents. They take her home to warm her up and feed her, and it’s here we discover the multi-generational family living in a tiny apartment. This family also consists of ‘grandmother’ Hatsue (an excellent Kirin Kiki), ‘mother/wife’ Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and teenage daughter Aki (rising star Mayu Matsuoka).

When the family discovers signs of abuse on the little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), they decide to keep her – less an informal adoption than an admission to the club. See, this family lives in poverty, and finds comfort in working odd jobs and shoplifting. They do bad things out of necessity, in a kind of twisted ‘honor among thieves’. Each person, regardless of age is expected to contribute to the team. The eldest provides a steady income through her deceased ex-husband’s pension, and by scamming mercy money from his second family. Osamu and Nobuyo have regular part time jobs, while Aki works in a sexy chat room. Shota polishes his shoplifting skills and even tiny Yuri begins to learn by watching him. Everyone contributes in what can be described as a pyramid scheme of petty cons.

As the film progresses, we get to know each of the characters and begin to care about them … rooting for them to find success. Writer-Director Kore-eda draws us in with subtle scenes of interaction between the characters, each willing to sacrifice for the other. He raises the question on whether choosing one’s family might create a stronger bond than those blood ties. What really seems to matter is where we feel we belong, and where are accepted.

The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s likely due to the devastating and expert final act. In a dramatic shift in tone, true character is revealed – it’s a shocking revelation on some fronts, and fully expected on others. Each family member has a backstory that slowly unfolds through the first two acts, and then abruptly slaps us upside the head as the film nears conclusion. There are many social aspects to be discussed after this one, including how the child welfare system (seemingly regardless of country) sometimes works against a child’s best interest, even with the best intentions. This is one that will grab your heart and then stick with you for a while.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9382rwoMiRc


OUR LITTLE SISTER (2016, Japan)

September 6, 2016

our-little-sister Greetings again from the darkness. Movies don’t frequently begin after the most disruptive drama has already occurred. However, such is the case with director Hirokazu Koreeda’s adaptation of Akima Yoshida’s graphic novel “Umimachi Diary”, the source material for this tale of sisterly love formed by tradition and some unfavorable circumstances that are “nobody’s fault” (a recurring theme).

Three adult sisters live together in their large family home, and have done so for many years – since their father left for another woman, and their mother, unable to cope, abandoned them. Sachi (Hanuka Ayase) is the oldest and self-burdens by carrying the most responsibility. Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chiko (Kaho) are quite a bit more care-free than their older sister, but this non-traditional family unit functions with traditional meals served within the walls of their traditional house.

The sisters attend their father’s funeral where they meet their half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose), who they invite to come live with them. The small town community of Kamakura provides a quaint and beautiful backdrop for the film … which has plenty of personal drama (what would you expect from 4 sisters?) but lacks the high drama that cinema usually heaps on screen.

We easily get to know each of the characters, and how they deal with being a product of their past, while hoping not to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Although “death” is seemingly everywhere, this is mostly a story about appreciating life and beauty – and the strength that comes with a family bond.

The acting is superb throughout, and director Koreeda’s camera work is understated and complimentary … except for the moments when it’s breathtaking – the Cherry Blossom tunnel, for instance. The look and feel of the film is quite tranquil, but emotions are constantly stirring – whether at a local diner or harvesting the family plum tree for this year’s plum wine. It’s little wonder that the film was so well received at Cannes Film Festival, and for those who enjoy a less-thunderous approach to cinema, it should be quite a pleasant two hours.