The Truth. Family Sundays
A Palme d’Or has its advantages and disadvantages, and that is something that Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda can certainly attest to. After Shoplifters made the rounds on the festival circuit, Kore-eda was attacked by a series of critics back home in Japan, who saw the film’s content as essentially anti-Japanese. Kore-eda’s choice to reject an award from the local Ministry of Culture, considering that the film had been partially financed by government funds, did nothing more than add even more fuel to the fire . That’s one side of the story. On the other hand, after Shoplifters’ resounding success, Kore-eda had, in fact, a carte blanche which would allow him to work on just about any project he wished to. For a director with such a heterogeneous oeuvre, Kore-eda’s next step was typically atypical: although all of his films to that point had been set in Japan, for his new project, Kore-eda temporarily turned his back on his native country. Instead, Kore-eda recycled the text for a theatre play that he had been working on for several years and then adapted its setting to France.
Just as in the case of Shoplifters (and, truth be told, of most of Kore-eda’s recent films), family dynamics are at the heart of The Truth, but the similarities between the two films’ premises only go so far. If the titulary Shoplifters are a series of characters that live their lives on the lowest planes of Japanese society, the protagonist of The Truth is Fabienne Dangeville, a grand French screen actress, who, caught in the fray of a late-age crisis, is compelled to publish an autobiographical novel that is rather more fiction than truth. Fabienne is played by none else than Catherine Deneuve, and the entire cast reeks of a vanity project: Juliette Binoche appears as Lumir, Fabienne’s estranged daughter who has been living in New York for years, working as a screenwriter, who is now coming back in order to confront her mother in regards to the aberrations that are printed in her autobiography.
Fabienne is constantly surrounded by a number of men that gravitate around her, be it her manager, some reporter or current and former lovers alike. Kore-eda doesn’t put any effort into clarifying the status and attributes of any of these characters from the get-go: paying close attention to and honoring the codes that exist in each and every family, the director plunges the spectator smack in the middle of the plot, without any preliminary pieces of information. Thus, a great deal of the interactions that take place at the beginning of the film are intentionally confusing: the characters talk over each other, and sometimes it’s not even clear who is speaking to whom. This general state of confusion that the spectator is in is also shared by Hank, Lumir’s husband. Played by Ethan Hawke, Hank, an American, is visiting Fabienne for the first time and, as he doesn’t speak any French, he ends up smiling politely for most of the film. It’s also notable that Kore-eda had some difficulties during the production of the film, due to the fact that he doesn’t have a good command of the French language, meaning that, for the first time in his career, he was in the situation of working with both a cast and crew almost fully made up of foreigners.
Fabienne’s late-age crisis is, in turn, exacerbated by her interactions with the crew of her latest film – a science-fiction melodrama that tells the story of an ill mother who goes to space, where she doesn’t age at all, and who then returns several times to Earth along the years in order to see her daughter, whom she finds at different ages, while she herself remains unchanged. Fabienne is playing the role of the daughter, while the mother is interpreted by Manon Lenoir, a young actress who really gets on Fabienne’s nerves. Aside from her youthfulness, Manon reminds Fabienne of Sarah, a friend and rival from her youth. For Lumir (who also has a daughter of her own, little Charlotte), Fabienne was always an absent and cold mother. On the other hand, Sarah was a sort of surrogate mother for Lumir, who now blames Fabienne for Sarah’s early suicide, who is extremely present in the film due to frequent references to her. As such, Kore-eda sketches out several maternal relationships that vary from blood relations (Fabienne-Lumir, Lumir-Charlotte) to relationships which, just as in Shoplifters, are not blood-bound, but that are even stronger and more real than blood ties (Sarah-Lumir), and even to fully fictional ones (Manon-Fabienne).
The actress who plays the role of Manon in The Truth is called Manon Clavel, while Deneuve’s real name is Catherine Fabienne Dorléac. However, this isn’t the film’s only meta-discursive element; for example, Ethan Hawke’s character, the affable and likable American, seems to have been borrowed from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. Even more so, Kore-eda spins all sorts of cinephile jokes into the fabric of his film, such as a poster of The Belle of Paris that is quite visibly hanging in Fabienne’s home, a really unsubtle reference to Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, which is probably Deneuve’s most iconic role. Kore-eda is very preoccupied with the ways in which reality and film are intertwined, paying close attention to the influence which the Manon-Fabienne coupling has on Fabienne-Lumir (the latter also being present for the film shoot). Fabienne and Lumir constantly create ties between the film and their own relationship, noticing echoes of real life in the fictional relationship and vice-versa. Even so, if for Fabienne, the fact of working on this film has somewhat of a cathartic function, Lumir continues to reproach her for not having been a good mother. Fabienne’s response is that she always preferred to be a good actress, rather than a good mother.
Kore-eda seems to suggest that, beyond the personal relationships and even the frustrations and small failures of Fabienne’s career, she is indeed a grand actress. Kore-eda himself describes The Truth as a love letter to Catherine Deneuve , and his affection for her is quite evident. Deneuve herself performs her alter-ego by relying on a heavy dose of self-irony – it’s obvious that she is enjoying her role. The results are remarkable: Fabienne is clearly a harpy but, at the same time, she is extremely charming and charismatic. Even in the film’s first couple of minutes, when she is taunting a shy reporter, as she complains about the fact that her tea is lukewarm and she vastly exaggerates the circulation of her autobiography, Deneuve simply steals the show and runs away with it for the entirety of the film. Moreover, sequences like the ones in which Deneuve matches her coat and shoes (which, obviously enough, are both lathered in animal print) and takes her dog on a walk through Paris, are simply a delight. There is however a moment which leaves behind a distinctly strange taste, and that is the scene of Fabienne’s speech, in which she criticizes fellow actresses that are highly involved in social issues; it’s a moment that the film speculates in an ironic fashion, the punchline being that Deneuve herself made some very controversial remarks on the #MeToo movement in 2018.
As such, Fabienne is an essentially reactionary character. Just as Norma Desmond, the grand actress performed by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Fabienne seems to be shouldering the entire downfall of French cinema (be it imaginary or not) – she briefly taunts the previous films of the young director that she is currently working with, and her remarks act as a disqualification for the entire generation of young French filmmakers: “Is a tripod really that expensive? There is no poetry. At all. Poetry is necessary for films. Be it about violence or the banality of day-to-day life”. Somehow, it’s rather ironic that it’s the lack of poetry that Fabienne criticizes in contemporary film production, since that’s precisely what doesn’t work in The Truth, meaning its poetic divergences – which, in spite of the accomplished cinematography and film score, are rather empty of any real content. For a film helmed by an auteur that is renowned for the silence within his films, the true moments of grace in The Truth are not those in which images are bathed in music, but rather the little glances, gestures, and off-hand remarks thrown around by the characters as they’re talking to each other, where the elaborate mise-en-scene doesn’t detract from the actors’ ingenuity. What is symptomatic for this excessive poetization is the leitmotif of the puppet theater stage, one of Lumir’s toys that is broken at the beginning of the film and gets repaired by the end – if one is to see Fabienne’s house as a miniature, as Kore-eda seems to suggest, it’s not a dollhouse, but rather, a theater stage. A fact that is underlined when, towards the end of the film, Charlotte impresses her grandmother by telling her that she dreams of becoming an actress, only to return to Lumir’s room where it is revealed that the entirety of Charlotte’s discourse was, in fact, a text that was scripted by her mother. The metaphor of a house as a theatre stage seems heavy-handed and contrived, leaving the impression that Kore-eda didn’t truly trust the contents of his film and thus felt the need to add some symbolic crutches to it, which do little more than to remind the spectator not so much of the fact that they are watching a film (which they are constantly reminded of through the film’s various meta-textual techniques), but that this film, which, conspicuously speaking, seems to be a light comedy, in fact carries some very serious and grave themes – maternity, guilt, suicide and so on.
The Truth excels precisely in the moments where the stakes are lower, and in which Kore-eda’s actors, instead of being limited by the director’s imposed narrative constructions, have a much larger degree of leeway. If you look at it as a drama that approaches the topic of trauma and the ways in which art may sublimate it, Kore-eda’s film creaks. As a comedy about a dysfunctional family (which, as a matter of fact, seems to be much closer to the director’s true intentions), The Truth is a triumph, which is mostly due to Deneuve’s sheer tour de force. During the entirety of the film, Deneuve’s protagonist complains about the fact that she’s being served lukewarm tea. Perhaps this could also be said of The Truth.
The movie is distributed in Romania by Independența Film and will be launched in cinemas in the following months.
Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke
France, Japan, Switzerland