“The Truth”: Film Review

A palimpsestic chamber piece in a minor key, Kore-eda’s “The Truth” stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in a film that is as French as they come – almost.

“The Truth” revolves around a grande dame of French cinema, in fiction and in life. Catherine Deneuve is Fabienne Dangeville, a film star of a certain age who publishes her memoirs just as her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) comes visiting from LA, child and husband in tow. The scene is set. Ambivalence reigns as Lumir, family, and luggage progress up the garden path and into the parental home.

Lumir simmers, quietly furious, yet on the edge of tenderness, exasperated. Meanwhile, Fabienne, still a beauty, still eliciting adoration from those around her, is either oblivious to her daughter’s sense of grievance, or acts as if she were. What is it, that makes Lumir so resentful, that makes her, an adult in her fifties, still so unreconciled with parental failings?

A gentle, tragi-comedy unfolds, as the family settles into the maternal home, each person finding their place, including Ethan Hawke – perfect as the peace-seeking and non-French speaking son-in-law on the periphery of an imminent mother-daughter conflagration.

It appears Fabienne may have been a self-centred mother,  and her memoirs a touch too self-flattering. As family meal follows family meal, all lovingly cooked by Fabienne’s current beau (where would French cinema be without dinner table conversations?), Lumir works herself up towards daughterly remonstrations. How could Fabienne, Lumir asks so very indignantly, write in her memoirs that she’d been a doting mother, doing the school run? It never happened, she protests. And Fabienne simply, quietly, grandly replies: my memoirs, my memories, my story.  And with this, we plunge into the central, recurring theme in Kore-eda’s life work: memories, relationships, and the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.

This is Kore-eda’s first non-Japanese film, and follows on from his 2018 Cannes Palme d’Or win with “Shoplifters”. It raises interesting questions. It feels so French, and there is no distancing from that – this is not the perspective of an outsider looking at a foreign culture.

As a viewer, there is something a bit dizzying to this, because it subverts genre expectations, in that ‘foreign’ cinema was once a classified as a genre of kinds. For a European viewer, let’s say, much of the time part of the experience of watching a film that is not European is its otherness – even when universal themes are enacted.

That veil of otherness, in cinema, of exotisation, is now being pierced more frequently.  Clear signs of this shift include Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite“, a film which not only won best picture Oscar, smashing the ‘foreign’ film cage, but which also gives the impression of being readily ‘capturable’ by any viewer, from any culture, even though it holds within itself very local specificities and references imperceptible to outsiders.

Kore-eda’s “The Truth” takes this further, as a Japanese film which is also, almost completely, and at the same time, French. Not a hybrid, not two superimposed cinematic artefacts. It is instead both, all at once, and through this, reflects the experience of all those recently described by one politician or the other, as citizens of nowhere.  Yet they are deeply anchored in a sense of place, and a sense of family, which is by the force of things, a multi-faceted one. Think of “The Truth”, with exactly the same script, but set in Japan, or “Parasite”, set in LA.

That sense of place, family, and time, is akin to molecules of ink ingrained in those old recycled parchments – palimpsests.  And “The Truth” is a rich multi-layered palimpsest – ghosts haunt it, in different ways. This is central to one element of this mother and daughter story, when Deneuve, as Fabienne the actress, is filmed on set, acting in a wistful, evocative film-within-a-film, “Memories of My Mother”, itself drawn from a sci-fi short story by Kenneth Liu.

There are moments not unlike those in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”: a child grows old, capturing only intermittent moments with their still young parent exiled light-years away, somewhere where time, compared to Earth time, runs so much more slowly.  What is felt as abandonment by the child, is intended by the parent as care and love. Those film-set scenes, highly stylised in a sparse, cardboard-and-paint kind of way, and taking place in an industrial space, are reminiscent of Kore-Eda’s 1998 “After Life”. The ghostly pigment of Kore-eda’s art from more than 22 years ago comes to the surface.

These are scenes where other, perhaps painful, sad memories, from Deneuve’s own personal life, emerge in this fiction, with a twist. Fabienne is accused of having usurped the place, long ago, of another promising film star, alleged to have been ‘better’ than her. This is a disconcerting allusion, in some ways too close to be accidental, to Deneuve’s older sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died in a car accident in 1967 when she was only 25. Deneuve and Dorléac had appeared together in Jacques Demy’s gloriously lyrical, bittersweet and much-loved 1964 musical, “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”. This joint appearance cements Dorléac’s presence next to her sister in the popular imagination, even now. Kore-Eda’s layering of past and present, memory made into presence and alluded to once more, reaffirms the tangibility of a person long-gone.

There is half-hidden, and then also well-hidden heartache that could easily be missed in this amusing, delightful, funny comedy of French manners – one that hides behind the explicit references in the film to “The Wizard of Oz”, ensconced in Fabienne’s house, concealed at the end of a lush but neglected garden, where a dog called Toto and a turtle who might be a discarded husband magically transformed, feature as bit-part players.

It turns out that this hidden heartache is likely not the heartache of a daughter who never felt quite loved enough, or in any case, not the heartache of Fabienne’s daughter. Seek it out – it’s a subtle, diaphanous thing, the very thing that Kore-eda has spent his career evoking, and something that Deneuve brings to life in a great, yet so understated, performance.

“The Truth” is now available to view on Curzon Home Cinema. Intrigued by the science-fiction story nestled within the film? Read “Memories of my Mother” in Ken Liu’s collection of short stories, “The Hidden Girl” – available from the KinoSelect Bookshop.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda
DoP Éric Gautier
With Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Ludivine Sagnier, Clémentine Grenier, Manon Clavel, Alain Libolt, Christian Crahay and Roger Van Hool.

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