Hirokazu Kore-eda, “The Truth” (2019)
Ironically truth is the one thing going missing in this gentle French comedy about a family whose members use lies and deception to get and hold onto what they want and to smooth their relationships with one another. Lumir (Juliette Binoche), her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) fly to Paris from New York when her mother, legendary French acting icon Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) publishes her memoirs. The threesome end up staying with Fabienne when the actress’s private secretary quits his job, apparently miffed that his employer hasn’t mentioned him in her book. During their stay, Lumir and her family accompany Fabienne to her latest movie shoot, a sci-fi number in which Fabienne is one of three actresses to play a character who is visited by her mother every seven years from outer space: the mother had originally gone into space as part of a treatment for an unspecified disease, and the treatment has the side effect of slowing down the ageing process so she remains youthful and young while the daughter ages back on Earth. The mother is played by Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) who greatly resembles Fabienne’s old acting rival Sarah Mondavan, whom Fabienne once cheated out of a coveted role in a film by sleeping with the film’s director.
There are many sub-plots in this film, each of them revolving around some form of deception which ends up (or nearly does) unravelling. Hank, a struggling actor, deceives Charlotte by telling her he is working on a film whenever he goes to rehab for his drinking problem. Fabienne tells Charlotte that the turtle in her garden is Charlotte’s dead grandfather: this story nearly falls apart when the grandfather unexpectedly turns up alive at Fabienne’s mansion. Lumir has long believed that her mother always put her acting career ahead of their relationship and Fabienne, at least in the early half of the film, seems to confirm this single-minded focus by suggesting that actors must always keep their eyes on the straight and narrow path of advancing their careers at the expense of everything else. Fabienne herself seems to envy Lenoir in much the same way she envied Mondavan to the extent of killing the latter’s acting career; a tension develops in the film as viewers are encouraged to look for signs of Fabienne trying to upstage Lenoir – and signs there are aplenty.
Surprisingly these sub-plots turn out quite harmless as the various characters resolve their issues or conflicts, several of which apparently turn out to exist only in their respective characters’ heads. Director Kore-eda is quite the master to invert these sub-plots and show them as little more than characters’ own self-deceptions and rationalising as a way of overcoming their inadequacies. It is easier to blame someone else for problems one should be overcoming. In the process of dissecting various characters’ issues and conflicts, Kore-eda does a fine job detailing how one particular family’s inter-generational dynamics operate and serve to define family members and put them in their niches within the family hierarchy. Lies and deceptions play an important role in preserving hierarchy and reputation.
The film can be seen as a character study and a vehicle for Deneuve to comment on aspects of her own career as an acting legend and of her personal life and relationships. It seems significant that the role of Lumir was given to Binoche and not to Deneuve’s real-life actress daughter Chiara Mastroianni: the two have been in a fair few films together as a mother-daughter pair acting out similar scenarios. Both Deneuve and Binoche dominate the film: Deneuve plays a queenly role, seemingly unperturbed by what trouble she creates and given to sudden petty actions when the occasion suits, yet capable of regret (which may or may not be genuine; the character is an actress after all) when others remind her of the mess she leaves behind. Binoche plays Lumir as a perfectionist and idealist shocked at her mother’s deliberate manipulation of what she, Lumir, believes to be true. Hawke is happy to play the laid-back subordinate complement to Binoche’s rather domineering wife. The rest of the adult cast does capable if not very outstanding work.
Viewers may find “The Truth” rather confusing in the way the various sub-plots are turned on their head. Memory proves unreliable and lies and deception turn out to be just as important as one’s memories in forming individual, family and other collective identities. Even the film itself may be very one-sided; for one thing, we are only aware of the sci-fi film within the film when we visit the set along with Fabienne and Family, and the sci-fi film may actually be about more than just a mother being blessed with apparent immortality while her daughter misses out. A lesson might be taken from “The Truth” in considering just how much people, organisations and societies depend on truth and on lies, deceit and manipulation in defining themselves. In this, “The Truth” is very much of a piece with Kore-eda’s more notable work “Shoplifters”.