To note that The Truth is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s starriest movie to date is to understate. While the Japanese director’s previous 13 films have been cast with actors unfamiliar to the non-cinephile masses, and often earn little more than festival and art-house exhibition, his latest has all the ingredients for broader appeal and a wide theatrical opening — something it was poised to have enjoyed in those halcyon pre-pandemic days.
Instead, and with a tough irony, Kore-eda’s most mainstream release is now, like everything else, an at-home premiere, albeit one with marquee names he’s never worked with before. Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke star in this international co-production, a prestige picture for better or worse. Though he doesn’t speak the French language that dominates the film, The Truth is anchored by the humanist director’s gentleness and generosity, his yin for tenderness among damaged people. And yet, more than any Kore-eda film I’ve encountered, there is a kind of emotional inertia to The Truth, its conflicts ambling at a tumbleweed’s pace toward insufficient catharses.
Kore-eda’s movies typically avoid the industry in which he is employed, but I suppose every major director eventually needs his or her inside-baseball metafiction. The Truth’s three major actors play off, subvert or reflect their on-screen personas. Deneuve plays a version of the diva she is — a Cesar-winning lioness of the French screen, here named Fabienne Dangeville. (To underline the art-imitating-life subtext of The Truth, we see a poster hanging in Dangeville’s estate for a role in the fictional The Belle of Paris, with its similarity to a certain breakthrough Deneuve part).
Fabienne’s life is as busy as ever: She’s appearing in a supporting role in a saccharine science fiction film called Memories of My Mother, and she’s celebrating the publication of her memoirs, titled The Truth. The latter has prompted a visit from her somewhat estranged daughter, Lumir (Binoche), a screenwriter working and living in America with her actor husband, Hank (Hawke), and their daughter Amy (Ludivine Sagnier), who have tagged along for the trip.
Tension immediately arises when Lumir begins to peruse her mother’s book, with its whitewashing of their fraught relationship — the false picture it paints of a show-business matriarch who lovingly balanced career and home life. Lumir also notes that a key figure from their past, a contemporary of Fabienne’s youth who met an unseemly fate, has been elided from the memoir entirely, even while her death represents the mother and daughter’s most gaping wound. Her spirit nevertheless haunts the movie — not to mention the movie-within-the-movie, for Fabienne an easy paycheck turned contemplative journey through her harshest memories.
Wry and fashionably layered, The Truth weaves its central themes of the fallibility of memory and the repercussions of denial around much doubling and self-referentiality. Like the perception we have of Deneuve herself — whom Kore-eda noted in an interview would not show up for shoots before noon — Fabienne presents as an entitled figure, haughty and controlling, with a “heart as hard as stone.” Lumir, like Binoche, is an insightful, creative working professional; it was Binoche, in fact, who suggested to Kore-eda that the writer-director adapt one of his own theatrical works, from 2003, into the crux of The Truth. Hawke, portraying the star of a web-based series, seems to channel the affable, American-abroad charm of his signal achievement as an actor, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.
But there is a double-edged sword to the cinematic echoes that reverberate through The Truth. It can be fun to discover the Easter eggs, but their revelations make for a flimsier, more reductive, certainly less original Kore-eda film. My mind continually wandered toward better movies with similar ideas — the mother-daughter conflict in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, the meta-artistic layer cake of another Binoche work, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria.
The Truth has much for film theorists to ponder, and will do little to dim Kore-eda’s status as a darling of the international art-house. But it’s the first time he has seemed so enthralled with the subtext that he leaves the text adrift.
His best works — Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son, Shoplifters — are deeply moving maelstroms of human frailty and uplift, signifiers of his vaulted status as the 21st century Ozu. Where they undulate with hills and valleys of emotions, The Truth is a flat plane populated by discursive actors riffing on themselves.
THE TRUTH. Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda; Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Ludivine Sagnier, Manon Clavel; Distributor: IFC; Now playing on digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, Vudu; and cable platforms including Comcast Xfinity and DirecTV