Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) is a screen legend, renowned as one of France's greatest film stars and now she has brought out a book of her memoirs, which has become a bestseller. But not everyone is happy the book has been released, for her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) is displeased at the portrayal of their family life, as the way Fabienne presents it is little to do with what Lumir regards as the facts. With that in mind, she has travelled back to Paris with her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and young daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) in tow to see her mother for the first time in a long while, not for a stand up argument, but to make her see her errors...
Good luck with that, as Fabienne is at once entirely self-possessed and also self-obsessed, almost a parody of how we believe the ageing divas of the silver screen to be, and it was true in writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda's first non-Japanese film that there was a gentle comedy running through it. Yet it had its serious side as well, and that surfaced in more than one scene where we can see what living in a family with one huge ego dominating all is like, though the real question fans of Deneuve would have been asking would be whether she was playing herself or maybe some other version of a famous actress she had encountered over the course of her lengthy acting career.
The actresses who get mentioned here are fictional ones, that is except in one scene where, playfully, Fabienne reacts to French icons of a comparable wattage to Deneuve herself (you may be able to read volumes into the expression she pulls when Brigitte Bardot is brought up). But mostly it is the character's relationship with a made-up star who has long since died which is crucial, for it casts her in a very bad light, and Lumir blatantly bears her mother a grudge over the way she treated a woman who sounds like she had a very raw deal. Did Fabienne spread malicious gossip about this "kind" individual and not only spoil her chance of winning a Cesar, but also her entire life?
This offered the film an edge it might not otherwise have had, but really it would not have been too bad an experience had it been omitted, and Koreeda had stuck with light character comedy. Fans of his sensitive style may have a bit of cultural disconnect at seeing non-Japanese cast members acting out his sort of drama, but unless you were determined to be hung up on this change of location it was a very easy watch, and proved he could adapt to a different milieu with skill. Helping was the willing cast who were very aware of what was required of them, even Hawke who was basically essaying the outsider's perception of Americans as childish but upbeat about trivial matters; he wasn't able to put much flesh on the bones of his role, but was game nevertheless even if you wondered how Hank and Lumir got together at all.
That said, it was the bond between Deneuve and Binoche that was the heart of the story, and they were very comfortable in one another's company: there was clearly a lot of respect there. The plot has it that Fabienne is working on one of those arthouse science fiction movies France turns out every so often, though yet again it was another example of a fictional sci-fi film within a film that didn't look anything like anyone would be keen to see. Here it was more a metaphor for the mother and daughter connection, however fragile it could be for these two, so one supposed it succeeded on that level and gave Fabienne something to grumble about when she jealously regards the new kid in town (Manon Clavel) as a threat to her, almost unconsciously as a learned reaction to any of her contemporaries over the years. It was a captivating performance by Deneuve, a public figure who has always been very guarded, but you probably won't believe she was merely playing herself, just as well. Otherwise, a bit pleased with itself, but with a lot to be pleased about. Music by Alexei Aigui.
Japanese director who has made both documentaries and dramas for Japanese TV as well as turning in some affecting feature films. Maborosi (1995) was a powerful study of a young woman coming to terms with her husband's suicide, Afterlife (1998) took an inventive look at life-after-death, while 2001's Distance deals with terrorism and sacrifice and I Wish a wistful tale of childhood. Our Little Sister gently developed his interest in the power of memories and in 2018, he was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his troubling, emotional drama Shoplifters.