Acclaimed Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda returns a year after his critical success Shoplifters, with his first foreign language leap, The Truth, a surprisingly French, wry, dreamy melodrama starring Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve tackles Fabienne, a sour actress with an inflated ego and even sharper tongue, far more preoccupied with stardom than those around her. Binoche plays Lumir, Fabienne’s acerbic, blazer-clad, slightly resentful daughter, who leads a fulfilling life outside her mother’s chilly microcosm with husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier).
As the soft flush of fall daybreak streams through the window in The Truth’s opening shot, it pans over to Lumir and her family arriving at Fabienne’s Paris home to celebrate the release of her memoir, ironically titled, The Truth. After the first few it becomes clear that Fabienne, the frosty, washed-up French actress, struggles with the truth, leaving important people out of her biography and embellishing on events that never happened.
The matriarch of uncomfortable truths, Joan Didion, once wrote, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.” And therein lies the film’s modest, uncomplicated premise: how memories themselves can betray us, lapsed and changed by the fog of time, nostalgia and perspective.
On some level, both Fabienne and Lumir suffer from a thwarted view of the truth. Fabienne is far too proud, consumed by an oblique, attractive truth thicker than the trail of her cigarette’s smoke. In the mind of the professional liar, the tirelessly devoted actress–memories don’t need to be steeped in reality at all.
Lumir, however, exhibits a more biased, yet altogether leveled view of the truth. Now a successful screenwriter, fulfilled by her career and personal life, the singular missing piece in her life is the neglect she still feels by her mother’s lifelong ambivalence as a parent. This begins fraying her recollections of her own childhood, as her lifelong grudge begins to fracture her own memories.
She forgets the affection she once felt for her mother. It’s clear, however, that of the two, Fabienne has the worst relationship with the truth. One scene between the two illustrates this difficult dichotomy perfectly:
“I can’t find any truth here.”
“I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth. It’s far from interesting.”
Lumir jabs back: “Why don’t you mention Sarah one single time?”
“My memories. My book. I can pick and choose, can’t I?”
Sarah is the subject of much disarray between Fabienne and Lumir. And while Kore-eda never explicitly tell us who she was, we conclude she was a contemporary of Fabienne’s, and on some level, a maternal figure to young Lumir. The stifling talent Sarah exhibited so early in her youth still haunts the all too-proud Fabienne while her absence continues to chase Lumir all these years down the road.
The two are dually haunted by Sarah’s departure, which Kore-eda alludes to, but never fully admits ended in her death. Her absence begins to fill the screen, consuming all dialogue and silence between Lumir and Fabienne. Emotions, however, don’t bubble to the surface until the actress feels the urgency to fittingly take on the melodrama, “Memories of My Mother,” and finds herself confronting past ghosts.
As The Truth hammers on with it’s quick, nonchalant French quips, it becomes clear that this isn’t simply a film about how memories betray us — it’s an exploration of grief. A beautiful one at that.
While the subject matter may seem heavy, the film doesn’t ever tonally plunge into the maudlin, it floats on the surface through wit, telling conversations, familial sounds of laughter, and the peaceful, privileged setting of Fabienne’s French estate.
The Truth steps out of Kore-eda’s usual depth while at the same time remains bound to his usual thematic albatross: stifled family dynamics. Both Deneuve and Binoche dazzle, shedding layer upon layer of their fractured characters until we arrive at their singular truths.
The Truth makes quiet ripples with what’s left unsaid in dialogue, smiles, and although some critics will argue it’s not Kore-eda at his best: I loved it. While Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters, was fresh and unconventionally touching, The Truth feels like its French New Wave cousin– a soft love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.
The Truth is Kore-eda in a different stroke, outside of his native Japan, yet still carries his dreamy cinematic language — one that’s brutally honest but never forgets to tuck us in at night. Sometimes we all need cinema that feels more like a lullaby than a harsh look into life’s trials and tribulations. That’s exactly what The Truth does, puts emotional truth at the forefront while softly reminding of us of the beauty that remains.