The Truth (La vérité)

France/Japan (2019) Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

What exactly is “the truth”? Despite its definition of being something incontrovertible and factual, it does seem to quite a subjective thing for many people. This might depend on memory but ultimately it is what people want to believe, resulting in waters becoming very muddied if one’s recollection of something clashes with another’s.

Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve), a highly respected, prolific, and multi-award winning actress, has just published her memoires entitled The Truth. To celebrate the book’s release, her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) flies over from New York to Paris with her jobbing American actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier).

However, when Lumir reads the book she is disgusted to see it is mostly lies, half-truths, blatant omissions, distorted facts and spin that clash with Lumir’s recollections. Fabienne seems to be a little forgetful now she is in her mid-70s and can’t be sure what she has recorded is fact or what she has simply chosen to remember, putting her relationship with Lumir at risk.

After the award winning success of Shoplifters, Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda makes a bold move by taking a leaf of the book of fellow compatriot Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and journeys over to France for the follow-up. Like Kurosawa’s 2016 Daguerrotype, Kore-eda’s The Truth is a predominantly French language film (with some English dialogue – sadly not subtitled for us HOH folk so screw you Curzon!).

But here is the anomaly – it is still distinctive Kore-eda yet also a very French film, with faint echoes of Rohmer and Resnais suffused in the both the writing and atmosphere. In other words, this isn’t Kore-eda trying to make an approximation of a French film as seen through a Japanese lens, he has made one but without compromising his own style and integrity.

If Kore-eda is a fan of French cinema, this is a love letter to it through a major plot point of the latest film Fabienne is making, Memories Of My Mother. A sci-fi tale, it concerns a woman returning from space after disappearing and not aging whilst her daughter Amy does. Fabienne plays Amy aged 73 but is cold towards her co-star Manon (Manon Clavel) for reminding Fabienne of a deceased friend and acting rival, Sarah.

Sarah is something of a Rebecca in that her presence is always felt no matter how much Fabienne tries to shake it off, explaining why Sarah is barely mentioned in her book; their rivalry was professional and personal, as Sarah was more of a maternal presence in Lumir’s life than Fabienne was. Sarah’s death is not discussed in detail but Lumir accuses her mother of being responsible on a psychological level as if she had caused it directly.

No love lost between mother and daughter it would seem, but this is a Kore-eda film so people don’t get angry, they talk out their problems, running with whatever catalyst forces the discussion. Whereas After The Storm saw a dysfunctional family trapped in a house by mother nature, The Truth uses Fabienne’s book and her new film to encourage some long needed baring of their souls.

Except Fabienne seems to have alienated herself from quite a few people close to her, whether through her unreliable memory or diva-esque behaviour. When he discovers he is not mentioned at all in her memoires, Fabienne’s long time assistant Luc (Alain Libolt) quits. Lumir’s father Pierre (Roger Van Hool) shows up for the book launch though takes the news that according to Fabienne he is dead, with less umbrage.

Only granddaughter Charlotte has a positive effect on Fabienne, her innocence is not just a tonic for everyone but later becomes a tool to make granny wake up to herself. The bond between them is formed when Charlotte is convinced Fabienne is a witch because Pierre shows up just as a large tortoise also called Pierre disappears, having been told it was once a man. In fact, Fabienne played the witch in a film version of a fairy tale book both Charlotte and Lumir had but it’s a sweet thread to bring some levity to the film.

Kore-eda tends to avoid major last minute plot twists in his films, mystery thriller The Third Murder being the exception, yet the way this story unfolds we’re almost expecting one to appear. The conceit behind this is Fabienne’s memory and whether she is able to recognise the difference between her truth and that of the people around her. Even then, it is not so straightforward as Fabienne is an actress therefore even she no longer knows if she is acting or not.

Maybe not as heavy with its Bergman-esque deconstruction of the psychological profile of a tenured actress, Kore-eda chooses to slowly deflate Fabienne’s ego and allow the true soul Lumir and others wanted her to be and loved her for. Even with an ensured happy ending, the journey is patchy as Fabienne is forced to look at herself and face “the” truth – whatever that may be – lapsing a lot on the way, and pushing Lumir to play her mother at her own game to get results.

Regardless of how he managed it, Kore-eda was blessed to have Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in the main roles as both are on top form here. If the language barrier was an issue it didn’t show as the convincing portrayal of a strained mother-daughter relationship is natural and powerful. Another stand out is young Clémentine Grenier as Charlotte, and indeed the whole cast responded well to Kore-eda’s subtle direction.  

It would reductive to say that Kore-eda has translocated his usual affecting family drama from one continent to another for The Truth yet this is accurate too, though therein lies the magic – his ideas and observations are universally and culturally transferrable. If this is a one off, it’s a success though Kore-eda’s Japanese works remain the pinnacle of his achievements. But honestly, this is a fine film.