This first-rate film explores the relationship between mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), and daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) during a visit by Lumir’s family – herself, husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), and 9-year-old daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) – to Fabienne’s home in Paris. Fabienne is working on a film – a small part, but what she gets these days. One of her co-stars is Manon (Manon Clavel), a woman 40 years her junior who strongly resembles an actress, Sarah, whose career the jealous Fabienne derailed many decades before.
Coincident with this visit is the release of Fabienne’s memoir, which Lumir avidly scans for mentions of herself: memories she considers inaccurate, and the absence of events significant to her childhood. More than once characters say versions of “Memory is faulty” – certainly true, but that fog is no match for the self-serving inventions of mother and daughter. It is the mark of great acting and a careful director that our sympathies turn from one to another – as soon as we meet Lumir, we feel the slights she carries so vividly – but as the film goes on, we see her planting her own ideas, perhaps for no better reason than to deceive her mother into some of the falsity she recalls from childhood. Even in a rare moment of closeness, the two spar.
Deneuve is magnificent: regal, helpless, kvetching, but when the camera is on her, gathers her poise about her like a beautiful robe. Her daughter is knowing and somewhat cynical, but also spiteful – she wants to rub Fabienne’s nose in the experiences that scarred her. Fabienne’s not buying it. She is blithe and vain, but also protecting herself – she cannot have the great presence she exudes if she apologizes, bends, begs forgiveness. Charlotte, too young to fully understand what the two women are doing, becomes the messenger of their attempts to reconcile or hurt each other. Hawke, playing essentially himself, watches their performances, aware of what they are doing but standing clear – this is not his fight.
Late in the film, as Fabienne praises young Manon, we think perhaps reality has broken through her high-flown vanity: she even acknowledges the qualities of her long-dead rival Sarah. But she is too shielded from the uncomfortable truth, which she has spent most of her life avoiding, to open herself to such a revision of her self-image now. No, she will continue the act that has brought her this far, saying only what she thinks she should. If we were to read the memoir, we would likely find it as self-serving as the persona she presents to the world. Somewhere in the shadows is the real Fabienne, an enigma even to herself.
Having seen Kore-eda’s film Shoplifters, in which viewers go from thinking we understand this family, to witnessing complexities that amaze and vex us, I was gratified to see that, once again, he does not stop the transformation of his characters even at the finale. By the end of either film, we feel there is still more to know about these people. In times when it’s easy and comforting to think we have people pegged, Kore-eda reminds us there is more to their stories than even they can reveal.