Japanese film director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been working steadily since the early 1990s and is internationally critically-acclaimed. He is a particular favourite of the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Jury Prize in 2013 for Like Father, Like Son and the Palme d’Or in 2018 for international hit Shoplifters, which was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Some of his earlier films include Still Walking (2008) and After Life (1998), which a Sundance film from this year – Nine Days – has been much compared to. Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016) both competed at Cannes and The Third Murder (2017) competed at the Venice Film Festival. Families (and all of the variations they come in eg. adopted children, half-siblings, found families) dealing with mortality, ritual/tradition and legacy are major themes that run through his work.
With all of the love that Cannes has shown towards Kore-eda, he is perhaps feeling like an adopted son himself and has paid France back by making his first non-Japanese language film, a French one. He has also taken on two of France’s biggest acting names – Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche – to play a mother and daughter. Catherine Deneuve is assuming the kind of role we associate with aging, fading movie stars, where they play thinly-veiled versions of themselves – think Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard or Bette Davis in All About Eve. Swanson was aged 50 in her swan song and Davis was the grand old age of 42, but at least Deneuve has been allowed to reach 77 before playing an actress who is perhaps a little insecure about her age and status in the film industry. Binoche herself has also played a spin on this role already, in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria.
Binoche plays Lumir, a screenwriter who lives in New York with her actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier). They visit Lumir’s mother Fabienne (Deneuve) in Paris (after a long absence) to celebrate the release of her memoir. Fabienne is working on a sci-fi film in which she plays a character called Amy whose terminally-ill mother never ages because she keeps leaving earth for 7 years, slowing the aging process enough to allow for brief return visits to earth. Each time she returns, her daughter has aged by 7 years until she has overtaken her mother’s age, which obviously makes their relationship difficult and confusing. The idea behind the film-within-the-film is intriguing – it is based on a short story by Ken Liu and has been adapted into a short film called Beautiful Dreamer. It leads to Lumir examining her own relationship with her mother and wondering if she is experiencing a similar role-reversal parental role, which can happen as our parents age. Deneuve shows the subtle shift in Fabienne’s acting when she starts to take the film seriously well, as portraying an actor when they’re acting cannot be easy.
The Truth is multi-layered and the various commentaries on the truth of the title spin off in different directions. Firstly, we have Fabienne’s memoir, in which she has been extremely selective with the truth. Then, we have the fact that Fabienne needs to be provided with a script (written by her daughter) in order to apologise to her assistant Luc, in the hope he will return. The Truth also touches on a topic that I’ve often wondered about – if you live with an actor (as a partner or family-member), how do you know when they’re being sincere and when they’re acting? Presumably, they’re extremely good liars? There is also the theme of surrogate mothers – Fabienne’s best friend and fellow actress from her younger days, Manon (who was also Lumir’s godmother) was a source of rivalry for Fabienne, but she also clearly loved her. It sounds as if it were a Joan Crawford-Bette Davis style relationship. The young actress playing the role of her mother in the sci-fi film is being relentlessly compared to the deceased Manon (partly because she has the same name) which causes resentment and bitterness for Fabienne.
One element that misfires is Ethan Hawke’s Hank, who isn’t in the film very much and can’t really communicate with anyone because he doesn’t speak good enough French. To include another character who is an actor (and have them be played by someone like Hawke, who was a child star and has been acting for 35 years) and then barely involve them, seems like a wasted opportunity.
On the other hand, the score by Alexei Aigui (who also scored I Am Not Your Negro) is one of the strongest elements of The Truth. It is whimsical without being cloyingly sentimental and suits the wry, witty style of the film well. The Truth is extremely reminiscent of an Almodovar melodrama, with its maternal themes, as well as its self-reflective commentary as a portrait of the artist. While this may seem like a total departure for Kore-eda, many of the themes from his previous work carry through to The Truth – family, mentors and obligation, as well as aging, death and legacy all have a major role to play here. The film-within-a-film takes it in an unexpectedly philosophical dimension and there is much to be uncovered, revealed and picked apart while discovering The Truth.
The Truth is out on VOD on July 3 2020.
Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda
Written by: Hirokazu Koreeda
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke