The Truth about Hirokazu Kore-Eda

December 15, 2019
The prolific Palme d'Or winning Japanese filmmaker, who does not speak French, tells us how he wrote and directed a highly acclaimed French film with the universal language of cinema.

We would like to live in a world where the truth is pure and simple, and not in any way relativist. But the world is just not like that and artists find this fertile ground. As Keats said, “what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet”. The rightly-in-vogue Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda is definitely both a cinematic artist and a deep thinker.

After scooping the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year with the brilliant quirky family drama The Shoplifters, he has now hopped over to Europe. For his first film as writer director in Europe The Truth, he has decided to direct film greats Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche (although he doesn’t actually speak French). He has also delivered a complex, multilayered tale of personal truths and lies to live by. This guy is fearless.

We caught up with the director on his visit to Sydney for the Australian launch of the film. It was also fortunate that Kore-Eda had the services of an astonishingly fluent translator who could take on the subtleties of the director’s often slow but nuanced answers. Even so, the interview sometimes felt like that scene in Lost In Translation where, after a suspenseful pause, something would come out that seemed to bear little relation to the amount of speech that preceded it.

Kore-Eda seems to be making a lot of films, and one wonders if he is ready to take a break.

“I have shot five films in five ears and I could keep going because I am not exhausted yet. But I thought maybe I should stop and take stock. I might be in a kind of cooling off period, but I have 5 more new projects that are in my mind also! But I haven’t decided which one I am going to do yet. I am having a long think…”

It was Binoche who approached him at a film festival some time ago with the idea of working together and she was a large part of why he came to make this film in France. Kore-Eda adds to this.

“It is true that Juliette wanted to do a film, but the idea that I already had was about this Grand Dame ageing actress. She thought maybe I am not going to play that lead but, on every level, she was fully committed and in fact she was the one who contacted Catherine Deneuve.”

We suggest that, whereas Binoche is quite easy going with the press and is often available for promotion, Deneuve, by contrast, has the reputation of being slightly scary.

Kore-Eda laughs genially. “Yes, it seems that everyone takes a step back when she [Deneuve] makes an appearance! But actually, she is very charming, and she has a very bright sort of persona, so I got along with her really well.”

The Truth centres around the memories and actions of fading diva Fabienne [Deneuve], who has just published a tell-all autobiography. She is also involved in making a film, so there is the familiar theme of the film-within-a-film. Fabienne, as written by Kore-Eda, seems unable to really relax with her daughter Lumir (Binoche). Moreover, Fabienne seems sometimes to be hiding her emotions. She knows what is expected in her role as a mother, but it also seems as if she might be treating motherhood merely as another role.

“Yes perhaps, and that could lead to the regret that her character has. She tells herself ‘I am not lonely’, etc. but we suspect that is not entirely true. Actually, this relates to one of the interesting ideas that Juliette came up with when we were discussing the character and the script; the idea that maybe Fabienne had a child partly to roleplay a mother. And if she could roleplay a mother, then she could take that experience and use that for her work in the future. Lumir is not an unwanted child, but she could also be like a ‘research project’ for Fabienne. It was interesting to me because it was a faint idea that we could thread through the film.”

And, thinking still about the course of Fabienne’s journey, has she fundamentally changed by the end of the story?

“Fabienne will always have the option of reverting to being this grand, revered actress. And it is hard to see if she is really changed because that trap door is there for her to go through and escape in a way. But from a Japanese point of view, if you like, I always understood it like when you come to an end of a period of mourning. So, Fabienne can come to the end of mourning for the unresolved things in her past, her ghosts as it were.”

The film is also about filmmaking. In film, unlike life, if you do something wrong or regretful you can always say, “can we do another take?” How does that relate to the decisions the characters make?

“Of course, in the film Fabienne is writing an autobiography and perhaps Lumir will write one too someday. So, in another way the whole thing is like some gigantic ‘second take’. They are trying to re-do their relationship in one way.”

It is interesting how you conceive of memory in the film. You said somewhere that memory is more a verb than a noun. It is something you do rather than something you have. And when you revisit memories each time, you change them. Does this relate to this film in a way?

“Yes, when we remember, we re-write. I think this whole story is about that process of re-writing.”

People have seen your films as melancholic but there is something more ironic and detached which can pull away from just wallowing in sadness. Is that right?

“I actually think both those things are conditions of life. So, we have both melancholic feelings, and at the same time there are all these ironic things about, so both are important to our view of life experience.”

You have gone on record saying that you like the work of Francois Ozon (who has used some of the same actresses, such as in his film 8 Women). However, another filmmaker that you admire is less obvious, and that is Ken Loach. What is the quality that you most like about Loach?

“It is not just that he is a socialist, it is also that he has an eye for observing humans. He is very kind and gentle, but he is also very clear and very stern about what he expects from people. And if he wasn’t like that, his work would not be so interesting. The thing that sustains his work and drives him is his anger. His is a burning anger [at the unjust world]. I think he is a rocker!”

The Truth is in cinemas December 26, 2019

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