The films of Hirokazu Koreeda —a Japanese auteur known for his humanist approach in exploring family dynamics— are never fleshy and aggressive. They often contain multitudes of small moments; both quiet and affecting with subtle hints of humour and tension peppered throughout every scene. His latest feature (which is also his first foray into Western terrain) The Truth, still retains that same quality, exploring a mother-daughter relationship in a very understated manner. But where all of his previous films usually focus on the lives of invisible people, like the impoverished “family” in Shoplifters or the recently deceased in After Life, here in The Truth, he chooses to tell the story of the most visible creature on the planet: the people of showbiz — from actors and screenwriters to all the individuals surrounding them. The result, though lacking in Koreeda’s trademark tear-jerking moments, is an exquisite movie that is warm and joyful, with plenty of remarkable moments thanks to its two leading ladies, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.
Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a French film legend who’s about to publish her memoir, which she ironically names “The Truth.” When the movie starts, we can sense right away what kind of a person Fabienne is: self-centered and unapologetic. But before long, this diva-like personality that she uses as a facade to hide her deep insecurity begins to crumble when her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Binoche), comes home from New York and bringing her recovering alcoholic and flailing TV actor husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and their daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), along with her to Paris to celebrate the release of Fabienne’s memoir.
Celebration quickly turns into confrontation the second Lumir gets her hand on the memoir and begins to realise that it’s basically stuffed with fabricated stories, like the part where Fabienne says that she used to pick up Lumir from school, which, of course, isn’t true. But Fabienne doesn’t care about any of her daughter’s concerns because to her, what she wrote on the book is her truth, not Lumir’s or anyone else’s, regardless of how performative it seems. “I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend, and a good actress,” Fabienne says when Lumir confronts her. “You won’t forgive me, but the public will.”
On lesser hands, this fractured relationship and the resentment that this mother and daughter have toward each other will easily turn into a big dramatic moment, but here, Koreeda chooses to not go down that route, and instead employs a film-within-a-film storytelling to not only mirror the central relationship of the two lead characters, but also to soften the tension between them. In said film, based on a short story by sci-fi writer Ken Liu, Fabienne is cast in a small, supporting role opposite the up-and-coming actress named Manon (Manon Clavel), whose look and mannerism remind her of a deceased acting-rival, Sarah, back from her glory days. Fabienne plays a 70-something woman where Manon plays her ageless mother who, due to a rare illness, decides to move to outer space to avoid death.
At first, all the scenes that happen in the filming set, where Fabienne feels threatened by Manon’s talent, is meant to allow us to understand the insecurity that Fabienne has as an actress past her golden time. But upon closer examination, it’s getting apparent that it’s actually meant to put Fabienne in Lumir’s shoes, as a daughter to an absent mother; to force her to come to terms with the reason why Lumir has a sense of hatred toward her. This may sound too heavy-handed — and yes, in some way, it is— but it doesn’t make the central conflict between Fabienne and Lumir any less powerful. If anything, it’s through this meta storytelling that The Truth gets most of its best moments, where Deneuve is given the opportunity to fully showcase her talent, displaying an excellent level of vulnerability underneath Fabienne’s abrasive exterior and where Binoche, from a safe distance, shows a subtle sign of relief that Lumir is feeling as she’s witnessing Fabienne from a new perspective.
Through the characters’ dynamic inside the story, The Truth also deftly illustrates our tendency to manipulate and hide the truth for the sake of our own feelings and of our loved ones. In Fabienne’s case, the truth is fabricated so that she can avoid dealing with the insecurity that comes from her perception of ageism. In Lumir’s case, some truth about all the good things that her mother’s done to her is hidden so that all the bad ones will remind her to not be like her. Even in a smaller character like Hank, the truth about him going into rehab is kept secret from Charlotte so that she can feel safe around him.
And all of these are played in ways that are delicate and deliberate. Koreeda never rushes to resolve the conflict between Fabienne and Lumir, nor does he force them to make sense of their flaws instantly. Even until the final moment, there’s some kind of inconclusive feeling to the story, but that’s exactly what makes The Truth all the more remarkable and human. It shows us all those small, incremental steps we have to take while we’re trying to work out our issues with other family members. And while doing so, he gives us a talented ensemble containing three of the best actors in the industry right now.
As Lumir, Binoche is phenomenal; both luminous and full of sensitivity at the same time. She doesn’t need to play Lumir aggressively to demonstrate all the complicated feelings that her character has toward Deneuve’s Fabienne. Hawke, despite a less meaty role than the two leading ladies, is able to charm in every scene he’s in. Even the newcomer child actor, Grenier, brings a much-needed warmth too. But The Truth is without a doubt a vehicle for Deneuve’s powerful talent. She plays Fabienne and showcases all of her emotions without overdoing it. Every small detail in her performance — the breath, the gaze, the body movements — feels natural even when she plays a character that’s easily defined by her performative act both as a mother and actor. Koreeda clearly has found the perfect trio in these actors.Considering its change of scenery and focus from ordinary, working-class people to the posh life of showbiz individuals, The Truth may feel like a resignation from Koreeda’s style of film-making — and understandably so. But in spite of that, and a few narrative shortcomings, all the trademarks that have defined Koreeda’s films are actually still present here; from the subtlety and warmth to its observation on family dynamics. It may not be on par with his previous films, but The Truth is a proof that even if it’s one of Koreeda’s least engaging movies, it’s still much better than most movies out there at the moment.
The Truth is available in select cinemas and on VOD now
by Reyzando Nawara
Reyzando Nawara (he/him) is a passionate film and TV writer based in Indonesia. He’s a big fan of Noah Baumbach, Mia Hansen-Løve, and Alex Ross Perry. When he’s not watching or writing about movies and TV, he likes to spend his day cooking, making sorbet, and taking beautiful photos.