Hidden Diary -- Film Review

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In recent films, Catherine Deneuve, the iconic doyenne of the French screen, has played exasperated mothers, remorseful over the mistakes of grown offspring if not downright contemptuous of their miscalculations. You might think she couldn't get harder or more frank than the resigned family matriarch in Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale," but you'd be wrong. In Julie Lopes-Curval's "Hidden Diary," Deneuve makes plain in every gesture and glance her extreme discomfort over her daughter's presence.

The French title changed over time from "La cuisine," suggesting the kitchen's centrality to women's lives, to "Meres et filles," suggesting a generational approach to female family history. Indeed, the ghostly presence of a grandmother -- and therefore the mother of Deneuve's bitter character -- makes this particular family portrait a triptych. Deneuve's Martine is the central portrait, however, though the film, written by Lopes-Curval and Sophie Hiet, ostensibly is about the daughter, Audrey (Marina Hands).

Audrey discovers a diary hidden by her grandmother, Louise (Marie-Josee Croze). It provides not only 1950s-era recipes -- the one calling for calves' liver and fatty bacon proves a hit -- but also brings into question the family legend that Louise deserted her husband and children.

So the portrait is not only that of mothers and daughters and the sometimes poisonous relations between them but also of two eras -- the contemporary age and the more rigidly conformist '50s -- making the latter sections a kind of French version of "Far From Heaven."

The interplay between the eras, as Audrey "sees" but really only imagines scenes involving her grandparents and her mother and uncle as children, never works as well as it should. Those scenes are unreliable (very unreliable, one later learns), though clothes, makeup and attitudes are right out of a '50s Elle magazine.

Since Croze is stuck with the almost unplayable role of an inauthentic ghost, it falls to Deneuve and Hands to deliver the frosty mother-daughter dynamics. The film never makes clear why the mother transfers sorrow and resentment over her mother's desertion to her daughter. How did Audrey grow up in Martine's household without one killing the other?

Audrey, who lives in Toronto, returns to her ancestral home pregnant, which gives her a crisis of her own. This mostly serves as an excuse to get the two combatants together, however. The film never even troubles to resolve the daughter's dilemma. The focus remains sharply on the past and the truth about Louise's betrayal.

A superb cast makes "Diary" a most watchable melodrama, and the ending has undeniable punch. Locations along the southwest French coast are an added plus.

Venue: City of Lights, City of Angels
Production: Sombrero Films, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Marina Hands, Marie-Josee Croze, Michel Duchaussoy, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Carole Franck, Eleonore Hirt, Gerard Watkins, Romano Orzari
Director: Julie Lopes-Curval
Screenwriters: Julie Lopes-Curval, Sophie Hiet
Producers: Alain Benguigui, Thomas Verhaeghe
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designer: Philippe van Herwijnen
Music: Patrick Watson
Costume designer: Dorothee Guiraud
Editor: Anne Weil
Sales agent: Bac Films
No rating, 103 minutes
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