It’s hard to imagine that The Truth marks the first time that Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche are sharing the screen, but it took some persistence to make it happen. Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu coaxed “CD” to play a fictionalised version of a French screen legend, in a wonderful film that riffs on French cinema history, and on the porkies celebrities tell in their memoirs. Juliette Binoche plays her long-suffering daughter-in-exile, who returns to France for the launch of her mother’s biography, and calls her out on the highly embellished elements of their shared history. It's a wonderful -and entirely different - follow up to the Palme d'or-winning Shoplifters.
Yet, director Kore-eda sayd, this formidable union of the two giants of French cinema is one that many thought might never happen.
“When I first thought up the idea, and told my French producers that I wanted Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in the film, they said, ‘French people would never go for that idea!’ It was so wild, unimaginable.
“But they were both such serious professionals about dealing with the material – the way they engaged with the work. The producers ought not to have worried.”
As he tells in the interview above, director Kore-eda’s script was adapted from its original Japanese, with the assistance of “an excellent translator” who reworked the script into French, and overcame the grammatical challenges, to add nuance to the dialogue.
“In Japanese, we drop off the subject from the sentence, but in French you can’t do that, so there was an intense process of putting the subject back into the writing, to that the meaning was translated perfectly.”
Watch the interview, or read edited excerpts below.
You’re working outside of Japan for the first time, making a ‘French film’ with the grand ladies of French cinema. Do you actually consider your films as having a ‘nationality’?
It’s not that I think of a nationality of a project or myself, I’m not conscious of its nationality. But when I take my films overseas, I’m made painfully of how Japanese I am, and that brings with it all sorts of memories and ideas about my own nationality.
The reality is when we present the work to the world and there is a whole world of cinema people and that is its own nationality.
It’s not the Olympics where you’re representing your own country; it’s not like the World Cup. It’s the world of cinema, and that is quite interesting.
You have so much of 20th century French cinema history up on screen, with both Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche together at last. How did you collaborate with Catherine to play with elements of her own backstory in the film, and in its film-within-the-film?
“The important part of the casting is that Fabienne had to be an actress who could really put on her shoulders, the national cinema of her country. When you look around the world, the only person I can think of is Catherine Deneuve. When you watch her, as the audience, you can’t help but consider her career as you watch it. But at the same time Catherine Deneuve was having tremendous fun, as she thought that Fabienne was nothing like her! She really enjoyed the process of playing this rather terrible person!
“She was able to have a tremendous amount of objectivity with what she was doing in this film."
Your films always explore the warmth and the tension that’s part and parcel of being in a family. Where does that stem from, such that it is now a hallmark of your films?
“It’s not like I set out to make family dramas. I’m merely taking hold of subjects that float to the surface, and I think that’s what I want to focus on right now. But about 10 years ago I lost my mother and that prompted a change of role. Then after that my daughter was born, and again, that saw me change roles. A lot of it stems from a meditation on what it means to become a father, or what it is to lose a mother and sometimes I spend time wondering, ‘What would my father have thought at this point?’ So it’s a lot of those considerations that feed back into the work. That is probably what led me to make these kinds of films lately, “
Your child actor, Clémentine Grenier, is wonderful. Did she have any idea of what an opportunity it was to share the screen with Catherine Deneuve? Much less to be directed by Kore-eda?
“Not at all! We auditioned for the child actor, and she had no idea who Catherine Deneuve was or who Juliette Binoche was. She’d turn up and these were just the two people she got to play with, and that worked out really, really well that she didn’t know who they were, and treated them like everybody else.
“For example, Catherine smokes all the time and has a cloud of cigarette smoke around her constantly. Everyone just accepts that, but Clémentine would go [gesticulates wildly, feigns coughing] ‘No, no, no, it’s too smoky, Grandma!’. She was the only one speaking up to this grand actress! And Catherine’s thing is that she’ll just talk to you about her random everyday things: ‘I have a dog, two hamsters..’ and Clémentine would cut her off and say, ‘Yeah, I know. You told us that yesterday!’. They had very candid interactions, and they are all reflected in the film.
“When we started – she had no aspirations in particular, but by the time we came back to do the ADR she was saying. ‘I’m going to be an actress’ so something has rubbed off as a result of them working together.”
Your films always feature natural performances from young actors. What’s your secret to working with children, to be able to elicit those responses?
“I started with kids back on Nobody Knows [available to stream at SBS On Demand – link below], and over the years I’ve stopped giving them scripts. I whisper the situation, ‘This is what you’re doing today’, and if they have lines I tell them what to say. With this film, I’d say, ‘Today you’re visiting grandma,’ and I’d give her the lines.
“If you give the script to them as homework and they have to learn their lines before they come to set, they feel an extra pressure to impress you and to do the right thing, whereas if you talk to them when they come to set, and they are fed the lines, they can actually live that moment. It gives them the opportunity to listen to the other actor’s line, and that leads to a better performance. It’s a method that I’ve come to over many, many, years, through trial and error. “
Speaking of many years, let’s go right back. What let you into directing in the first place?
“I wanted to make a living writing, so I went to university to study literature and one day in cinema club we were watching revivals, and I saw a Fellini film. It was then that I understood that directors had this tremendous role. That was the first inkling, and later I was working at a TV studio and we were working on a documentary about a Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao hsien. Dealing with him and seeing his personality and the way he went about his work, fed into my own desire to be a director. So they are the two big directors who inspired me the most to pursue this as a career.”
Your work is often compared to that of Ozu, certainly in the English language press, but also to that of Spielberg, and Ken Loach, especially with Shoplifters. How do those comparisons sit with you?
I’ve always resisted the comparisons to Ozu: ‘I go “Okay… “ ‘ but I’ve come to see that it’s praise, so I accept it now.
It may say more about those making the comparison.
Ken Loach, on the other hand, is like a compass for me: I’ve always had his work at the back of my mind, as he is one of the two directors today that I really admire – he and Hou Hsiao hsien. So to have comparisons to his work is really superlative. I was very fortunate that I got to meet him in London last year.
What’s next for you?
For the last five years I’ve been doing a film a year I haven’t really taken any rest. It occurred to me that it would be very dangerous to continue at this pace, even though I’m extremely fortunate to be in such a position. All things considered, I’ve decided I’m not going to do anything in the immediate future, and I’m going to stop the engine.
The Truth is now showing in Australian cinemas.
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Watch Kore-eda Hirokazu films at SBS On Demand
Watch 'Nobody Knows'
Sunday 6 June, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Starring: Hanae Kan, Momoko Shimizu, Hiei Kimura, Ayu Kitaura, Yuya Yagira
Our Little Sister
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Starring: Ryô Kase
What's it about?
Three sisters bring their 13-year-old half sister to live with them after the death of their father.