In the latest film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, Catherine Deneuve plays a legendary French film star who has just published a memoir titled, just like this movie, “The Truth.” It’s a promise that her book comes nowhere near fulfilling; as for Kore-eda’s first film made outside his native Japan, it’s a decently fascinating exploration of the fallibility of memory and of how the truths we tell ourselves so frequently outweigh an empirical certainty. Deneuve’s character, Fabienne, falls into the great screen tradition of actresses capable of great emotion on stage or screen but less so off — think of Bette Davis’ character in All About Eve or Gena Rowlands’ character in Opening Night. But just as important, she also shares some DNA with Shirley MacLaine’s movie star character in Postcards From the Edge in that her career always came before her duties as a mother to her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), who’s now a grown-up screenwriter.
Lumir, her actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), have come to Paris from New York to celebrate the publication of Fabienne’s book, but Lumir wastes no time digging into the tome with red pencil and Post-It notes at the ready. She points out that Fabienne’s portrayal of herself as a doting mother is completely false, but Lumir comes out better in the book than others; Fabienne’s longtime caretaker Luc (Alain Libolt) was left out entirely, while Lumir’s father, Pierre (Roger Van Hool), is listed as dead when he’s still very much alive.
At the same time, Fabienne is also making a movie, opposite the young-up-and-comer Manon (Manon Clavel); Manon is being compared to a friend and peer of Fabienne’s, the late Sarah, who was in many ways Lumir’s surrogate guardian. Sarah’s memory remains a sticking point between the mother and daughter, and the film Manon and Fabienne are making prompts even more painful recollections in Lumir: It’s about a mother forced by disease to live in space, visiting Earth every ten years and remaining the same age while her daughter gets old, clearly a powerful metaphor for Fabienne’s frequent, lengthy absences during Lumir’s childhood.
Throughout, Kore-eda’s screenplay makes it clear that Fabienne fully understands the choices and the personal sacrifices she has made over the course of her career, but for her part, Lumir often shows herself to be her mother’s daughter, from the unreliability of her own recollections to her skill at literally putting words into other people’s mouths: Fabienne claims never to have apologized to a man, so she needs a script when she begs Luc to return. Both Deneuve and Binoche are titans of their respective generations, and to see them clash on screen is exquisite entertainment. They pepper resentment and impatience with grace notes of humor and compassion, and the results feel genuine, even in a setting that is filled with play-acting. Hawke, too, shines throughout. It’s tricky for successful, accomplished actors to play untalented, struggling ones without delving into condescension, but he grounds it in compassion and sensitivity.
But with all that said, the film isn’t as heavy as it may sound. Instead, the films often an accretion of little moments, often pretty funny, sometimes a little sad, but always embedded in the reality of these characters. Nearly all of their interactions come and feel organically, without chunks of exposition clogging up the conversations, which is especially impressive given that overwriting is often the hurdle at which a non-native English or French speak falls into when working in the respective languages for the first time. Kore-eda’s approach takes The Truth to being a somewhat fleeting pleasure. The film is composed of episodes rather than mounting-stakes acts and exists more to illuminate the characters in a state of stasis than to watch them change dramatically. Throw in the randomly deployed musical cues and the film comes to as close to feeling like the Kore-eda “brand” than any of his films — sharp and gentle but a little more fleeting and sleight than most. If Kore-eda’s (very good) last film Shoplifters was about discarded people coming together to form a family, perhaps The Truth is the opposite, where flesh-and-blood relations have to figure out how to forgive, or at least to understand, each other. While The Truth isn’t as strong as Shoplifters, it still sees Kore-eda, this time in a whole other language and continent, capturing some of the more sharp intricacies of the contemporary family. Keenly observed and minorly playful, The Truth finds Hirokazu Kore-eda revisiting familiar themes with both a sensitive and wistful touch.
The Truth will be released in select theaters and on VOD on July 3rd