When it comes to the new French-Japanese family drama “The Truth”, they had me at Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke. Toss in that it is written, directed and edited by acclaimed Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda and you have one of my most eagerly anticipated movies of the year. With such craft in front of and behind the camera, it’s hard not to be drawn to its potential.
“The Truth” marks Kore-eda’s first movie shot outside of his native Japan. It’s also his first film since winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his 2018 gem “Shoplifters”. This time he sets his story in the beautiful City of Lights and sports a star-studded cast. But Kore-eda never forsakes his arthouse roots or loses sight of the deep personal focus his films are often known for. You’ll also find him exploring many of his signature themes and fascinations while maintaining the warm, curious, and observant gaze you’ve come to expect from the distinguished filmmaker.
In a delightful bit of meta casting, 2-time César Award-winning French screen legend Catherine Deneuve plays a 2-time César Award-winning French screen legend named Fabienne Dangeville. The film opens with Fabienne giving an awkward interview to promote the upcoming release of her memoirs ironically titled “La Vérité” (or “The Truth”). Fabienne is instantly defined for us – a brash and unapologetic diva who at 70-years-old still feels her star status affords her special consideration. As you would expect Deneuve handles the character masterfully, infusing Fabienne with sincerity and spirit yet with a subtle air of self-imposed misery.
In less capable hands Fabienne could have easily become a caricature. But neither Kore-eda or Deneuve allow that to happen. Instead we are given a layered and complex character whose star may be fading but who still possesses the allure of celebrity. She can be haughty and unbearable making her ripe for disdain. This becomes especially true once it’s revealed she ￼neglected her family for the sake of her career (and still brazenly defends doing so). But she’s far from one-dimensional and Deneuve’s performance reveals cracks of vulnerability.
Binoche is a sublime presence playing Fabienne’s long-suffering daughter Lumir. She’s a screenwriter living in New York with her second-tier actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their precocious daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). The three arrive in Paris for the launch of Fabienne’s book and immediately old mother-daughter tensions resurface. Things move from a slow simmer to slow boil after Lumir reads her mother’s book and finds it to be far from “The Truth”. When confronted Fabienne coldly responds “I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth.”
From there Kore-eda patiently let’s his story play out. It may seem like the movie is idling along with nothing much happening. But it’s quickly evident that Kore-eda is carefully unpacking his characters through the organic flow of everyday life. By simply watching and listening we learn that everyone is in some way wrestling with the past and they all seem to have something to hide. It neatly fits with Kore-eda’s lingering interest in family dynamics specifically between parent and child.
Kore-eda is a master of subtlety and observation, but he also has a sly sense of humor. He builds his movie around the production of Fabienne’s new film, a sci-fi arthouse oddity titled “Memories of My Mother”. These amusing scenes get us out Fabienne’s posh but stuffy Parisian estate and onto a movie set where Kore-eda pokes fun at the quirks of filmmaking while relishing the joys of creativity. At the same time the characters are always front-and-center and their stories are steadily moving forward. There’s an glaring analogy between Fabienne’s new movie and her mother-daughter drama back home, but it’s handled with sure-handed smarts.
Kore-eda pulls off a lot with “The Truth” including making a film that is indelibly French through and through. It’s a beguiling chamber piece where every line drips humanity and his characters are the chief focus. It helps to have talents like Deneuve and Binoche whose natural fluency with dialogue is unmatched. Even Ethan Hawke’s Hank, who seems like a flighty tag-along at first, is fully fleshed out and given a surprising amount of depth.
“The Truth” is a treat for those of us who love sitting back and watching great performers act. Binoche is one of our best working talents and Hawke has for years now consistently made interesting choices. But Deneuve is the star (as she should be). She has worked steadily since her debut in 1957, but it has been years since she was given such a meaty role. Her self-referential confidence and complete command of her character shows she hasn’t missed a step. And Hirokazu Kore-eda is not only smart enough to utilize this caliber of on-screen talent, he also writes the kind of engaging material that enables them to shine.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS