The Truth (La vérité, France-Japan, 2019)

Returning with trepidation

I pretty much avoid reading anything about films I want to see but still felt the a sightly negative vibe about Kore-eda Hirokazu’s first non-Japanese film. Having read some reviews now they’re certainly not negative but they are also not ecstatic, which they should have been. Kore-eda is a master at portraying family dynamics and transplanting his aesthetic to Paris has not mattered at all. Indeed, the casting of Catherine Deneuve allows for a reflection on acting and stardom that is likely to have been more appreciated in the west than if he’d used a legendary Japanese actor. I’m sure the film isn’t about Deneuve herself, though there is a poster for a fictional film Belle de Paris that obviously references Belle de Jour (France-Italy, 1967), but the driven egotism, and its costs, that is (or may be?) required to be at the absolute pinnacle of any field is the central theme of the film. In recent films I’ve felt Deneuve relies too much on her charisma for the performance, she’s not exactly ‘dialling it in’ though maybe the roles weren’t challenging enough – for example, Potiche (France, 2010). She’s certainly prolific, making an average of two films a year in the last decade, but in The Truth she is sensational; maybe being cast with the great Juliette Binoche led her to raise her game?

Binoche plays Lumir, the slightly-estranged daughter of Deneuve’s Fabienne whose just-published autobiography appears to be anything but its title: The Truth. The long-running tensions that, to an extent, bind families together are brilliantly shown, usually through facial expression. Ethan Hawke, slightly underused but that’s the role, is also excellent as the ‘second-rate’ actor husband of Lumir who remains affable despite Fabienne’s occasional jibes.

Fabienne is making an SF film where she plays the daughter of a terminally ill woman who remains ‘forever young’ by travelling into space and returning every two years for a short while. It’s a brilliant concept (apparently based on something by Ken Liu) that facilitates a meditation on age and a child’s relationship with their parents. The film is investigating, though not to any great philosophical depth, the nature of truth and if that sounds heavy the film is also very funny in an off-beat way.

As always in Kore-eda, the direction of children is magnificent. Lumir and Hank’s daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), serves as an intermediary between the not-quite warring adults without pretension. Lumir is a scriptwriter and gives her daughter some great lines to flatter Fabienne who earlier asked for lines to smooth over conflict with a miffed personal assistant. How often in life do we think of lines to say before an encounter?

Kore-eda’s ‘dislocation’ from Japan has been seamless and he even manages to include trees, though not in blossom as in his Japanese films, as emblems of a time of life.

Transit (Germany-France, 2018)

On the road to nowhere

Transit is a fascinating and disorientating adaptation of Anna Seghers’ WWII novel based on her experiences escaping the Nazis via Marseille. Daringly, scriptwriter-director Christian Petzold sets the film in the present day with some period touches (such as a typewriter and retro-clothing) so drawing parallels between the fascists of then and the increasingly fascistic now. This Brechtian aesthetic reinforces the Kafkaesque influence on the novel which includes the protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) taking on the identity of a dead writer to try and escape and when he has to prove, to the authorities, that he wants to leave in order to be granted leave to leave. In addition, the writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), mistakes Georg for her husband briefly a couple of times and their lives become entangled.

One indisputably modern element is the African migrants who Georg befriends which adds to the difficulty he has in leaving due to the emotional bond he forges with a youngster, Driss (Lilien Batman). In one superb scene he returns to his friend’s address to find it populated by bewildered migrants; Driss and his mother have gone. Marie, meanwhile, is involved with a doctor who needs to leave but is incapable of doing so without her and she is waiting for her husband and doesn’t believe Georg when he tells her he’s dead. The characters are caught in a liminal space which is, as shown in a parable told by Georg, hell.

Petzold brilliant captures the constant anxiety of living on the edge as police sirens disrupt the soundscape and raids are commonplace. Beer channels Nina Hoss’ (a Petzold regular) distanciated acting style: she’s there but not there which can be seen in a number of Petzold’s films; for example Phoenix and Yella. Both Beer and Rogowski are brilliant in their roles of people trying to act normally in extraordinary circumstances.

Kafka may be the novelist of our time as politicians insist that lies are true and people act as if nothing is seriously wrong in the world (be it Covid-19 or climate catastrophe); Trump suggesting that left wing fascists are a threat is his latest idiocy and Johnson blames care home for deaths that was the fault of his government. But as Kafka (and TS Eliot) showed, human beings don’t have a strong grip on reality so most people don’t seem to realise we’re on the ‘road to nowhere’; which, incidentally, is the Talking Heads song that plays out Transit.

Another Brechtian dimension to the film is the suggestion that what we’re seeing is fiction (which of course it is). A voiceover narrator (who is revealed to be the manager of a restaurant where Georg leaves the manuscript), it is suggested, is reading the novel left by the writer (which Georg takes and which, apparently, is Seghers’) and there’s occasionally a mismatch between what is said and what we see; exactly like today’s world then! James Latimer, in Cinema Scope, is worth reading after seeing the film which is on MUBI.