The Truth Review
Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Truth marks a series of firsts. It’s the first film the Shoplifters director has made outside Japan, and the first he has made in a language (French) other than his own. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s also the very first time Gallic screen legends Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche have appeared together in a movie, despite their careers having a 30+ year overlap. Such milestones all prove rather more diverting than the film itself which, despite containing some powerful moments and sharp dialogue, lacks the subtlety and economy of Koreeda’s best work. In fact, there are times when The Truth is downright ponderous and clumsy.
Deneuve is Fabienne Dangeville, an acclaimed but difficult actress with her most successful years long behind her. When Fabienne’s semi-estranged screenwriter daughter Lumir (Binoche) and her family (including husband Hank, played by Ethan Hawke) fly in to Paris from New York for a visit, the stage is set for confrontation. Fabienne has written a memoir (called The Truth) which, amongst other distortions, paints a wonderfully rosy picture of their mother/daughter bond. Far from enjoying a happy childhood, however, Lumir couldn't escape from her negligent mum quickly enough, and resents how Fabienne has rewritten history to excuse her past behaviour.
Although the two enjoy an easy chemistry, this is Deneuve’s film far more than it is Binoche’s. It only really comes to life when Fabienne is on screen and Koreeda gives her all the smartest lines: “I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend, and a good actress,” she deadpans at one point, like a septuagenarian supervillain. Everyone else is a bit dull by comparison, especially Hawke, who doesn’t get very much to do as alcoholic man-child Hank, although he at least does it impeccably. Apart from one juicily awkward clash between Fabienne and Lumir over dinner, their mutual resentments fester and simmer, rather than spill over into the kind of genuine intensity that might have made this truly captivating.
Fabienne rattles around in a leopard-print coat, dripping in gold jewellery. If you didn’t know anything about Deneuve or this film, you could mistake her for an East End matriarch in something horrific involving Guy Ritchie. It soon becomes clear, though, that she isn’t just an irascible grande dame and terrible mother (“I hate the cellar – [your] grandma used to lock me in it,” Lumir tells daughter Charlotte early on), she’s genuinely quite unpleasant, albeit made so by a toxic combination of bitterness, loneliness, guilt, and grief.
Although we never see her, the spirit of a long-dead actress named Sarah is as important a character here as anyone. Fabienne's closest friend, she was dearly loved by Lumir as a child, and, with good cause, daughter blames mother for Sarah's passing decades before. Indeed, it is the main reason for the fracture in the pair’s relationship. Sarah has been idealised in death, Fabienne demonised in life – to Lumir, one epitomises only good qualities, the other mostly bad.
“You can’t trust memories,” suggests Fabienne in an attempt to extricate herself from her daughter's criticism and the film returns again and again to this idea of what we recall from the past being unreliable. But it’s pretty certain Fabienne's distance from her daughter is the result of a ruthless ambition to be a great actress 40 years before. In fact, dedication to her craft has been so all-consuming, she no longer seems able to function as a regular person. Lumir even has to write some lines of dialogue, so her mother knows what to say when she attempts to get her personal assistant to return to work after he quits.
Sarah’s almost ghostly presence takes on a new dimension as Koreeda gives us a film within a film – a sci-fi drama called Memories of My Mother (based on a genuine short story by Ken Liu) in which Fabienne has a small part. About a woman who, due to a life-threatening illness, lives in space and can only visit Earth to see her daughter every seven years, it features a young rising star – Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) – in the lead role, who is being hyped as the “new Sarah”, and is said to even look and sound like her.
Memories’ conceit is that Manon's character stays the same age throughout, while her daughter gets older (Fabienne is playing her at 73). It’s clear that Fabienne has only taken the role because she recognises the resemblance between Sarah and Manon and it, of course, leads to several rather predictable moments during shooting, where Fabienne is talking to Manon but is really addressing long-dead Sarah. “Only I grow old, and you’re still so young,” she tells her. If you don’t quite grasp the significance, Koreeda even spells it out for you by including a moment when Manon, slightly out of focus, stands behind Fabienne looking like an apparition at her shoulder.
In fact, there are quite a few moments in which The Truth overeggs its symbolism and scenes. There’s a prison behind Fabienne’s house so we can properly understand that living at home with her mother was like being in jail for Lumir, and the place has certainly become one for Fabienne. The director also serves up a sequence in which to help us fully grasp Fabienne's isolation, she visits a Chinese restaurant. She's alone except for her dog, Toto, who she feeds scraps, while a happy family enjoys a noisy birthday celebration just a few metres away. I've seen subtler fireworks displays.
Amidst the gloom, there are some genuinely amusing moments (the opening scene in which Fabienne is interviewed by a nervous journalist is a hoot) and playful references to other work. The Wizard of Oz is mentioned repeatedly (you can guess which character Fabienne is meant to be), while Memories of My Mother recalls both Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Binoche played an ageing actress coming to terms with a career on the slide. And, of course, it’s impossible to think of Hawke wandering the streets of Paris without conjuring memories of him as Jesse in the Before Trilogy (Binoche standing in here for Julie Delpy).
Koreeda has made a career of pulling apart the family unit to see what makes it tick, but The Truth focusses more on mothers and daughters than he has previously done (although Fabienne is practically an angel compared to the mum in his masterful 2004 film, Nobody Knows). In fact, the men here are almost entirely peripheral, underlined when Lumir’s father, Pierre (Roger Van Hool), turns up out of the blue to discover Fabienne has declared him dead in her memoir, while long-term personal assistant, Luc (Alain Libolt), receives not a single mention in its pages. And Fabienne's partner Jacques (Christian Crahay) is so inconsequential, you'd be forgiven for forgetting he's even in the film.
Absence and death also loom large in Koreeda's work (the disappearance of the mother in Nobody Knows, the demise of the 'grandmother' in Shoplifters, the young husband's suicide in Maborosi). In this case, it's Lumir's absence and Sarah's passing that are mostly responsible for Fabienne's eternally sour mood. It therefore makes sense their reappearance in her life (Manon standing in for Sarah) is what ultimately helps Deneuve's character take a few baby steps back towards the light. But while the film's final scenes are meant to be revelatory, even heart-warming, they instead feel glib and unconvincing. Fabienne might not be nearly as bad as she's drawn, but the forgiveness and redemption on offer here feels a little too easily won.
The Truth is now a Curzon Home Cinema release only and can be viewed here from Friday 20 March