Filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu once predicted that his Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters” would come to represent a major turning point in his career — the end of one phase, and the beginning of another. As it turns out, “The Truth” is inevitably a bit more complicated.
The first movie the Japanese writer-director has made since winning the film world’s most prestigious award is also the first that he’s ever shot in another tongue or country, and that fact alone is enough to make Kore-eda’s latest feel like an outlier in any number of obvious ways; a foreign organ transplanted into an otherwise cohesive body of work. On the other hand, this wise and diaphanous little drama finds Kore-eda once again exploring his usual obsessions, as the man behind the likes of “Still Walking” and “After the Storm” offers yet another insightful look at the underlying fabric of a modern family.
In fact, “The Truth” sometimes feels like a mirror image of “Shoplifters,” albeit one that looks a hell of a lot brighter now that it’s been refracted through the bruised golden light of Paris in autumn. If that was a story about strangers pretending to be relatives, this is a story about relatives pretending to be strangers. This warm and quietly moving family portrait may be the most literal (and least heartbreaking) of several movies that Kore-eda has made about the performative nature of parent-child relationships, but it’s one that ironically feels novel enough — and perhaps even necessary — because it reaches back to the earliest days of the director’s career in order to filter Kore-eda’s recent fixations through some of his most formative ideas. When it starts, “The Truth” seems like a radical change of pace. By the time it’s over, the movie feels more like a surefooted lateral step in a new direction.
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“The Truth” could prove less satisfying for Kore-eda neophytes and non-fans who don’t really care about how the auteur’s latest work speaks to the rest of his stuff, but it might also be easier to swallow. Instantly believable as a wistful and earthy French dramedy, “The Truth” is lithe and relaxed enough to be mistaken for an Olivier Assayas movie. It even stars Assayas favorite Juliette Binoche (adding another big name to the absurd list of directors she’s worked with over the years), as the “Clouds of Sils Maria” actress plays a screenwriter named Lumir who returns to Paris in order to celebrate the publication of her mother’s new memoir. Although “celebrate” may not be the right word for it, and “memoir” is a bit of a misnomer for a book that’s allegedly full of fiction.
The most famous living actress in France, Lumir’s mom Fabienne is basically Catherine Deneuve, which makes it very convenient that she’s played by Catherine Deneuve (who hasn’t seemed this happy to be on screen since Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” in 2008). Once celebrated as the “Belle of Paris” — to quote one of the film’s cheekier references — Fabienne has aged into a veritable lioness of a woman. She’s rash, demanding, and candid to the point of callousness when it comes to shit-talking other people.
When it comes to her own story, however, Fabienne is happy to fudge the details. After Lumir labels her mom’s book as a piece of rose-colored revisionist history, Fabienne roars “I’m an actress, I won’t tell the naked truth!” Like any great actress, she’s always been able to sell people on her lies. Even the people closest to her. Maybe Fabienne is a bonafide narcissist, maybe that’s just the role she’s always plays as a parent.
In order to help parse the difference, Kore-eda casts the character in a movie within a movie: A mawkish sci-fi drama called “Memories of My Mother,” in which Fabienne plays the 73-year-old version of a girl whose beautiful, dying mother (arresting newcomer Manon Clavel) never ages because she retreats to a distant planet where time moves slower and staves off her disease. “Memories of My Mother” inevitably reflects the “reality” of Fabienne’s relationship with Lumir, but Kore-eda is too self-aware not to have fun with it — the two dimensions bleed into each other in several amusing ways, and the parts when Lumir brings her own daughter to the set make for some of the most poignant moments in “The Truth” (it should come as no surprise that Clémentine Grenier delivers a pivotal and fantastic performance as the film’s youngest cast member, as Kore-eda proves himself to be the world’s greatest director of child actors in any language).
It’s through this subplot that Kore-eda exhumes one of his oldest preoccupations: The permanence of film versus the impermanence of memory. More than 20 years ago, the director’s indelible “After Life” imagined a purgatorial waystation in which the newly deceased are given a week to select a favorite memory from their time on Earth; when the week is over, a film crew recreates those memories on a soundstage and invites the dead to exist inside of them for all time. “The Truth” applies that same logic to this mortal coil, suggesting that even the living can entomb themselves in the memories we invent for ourselves. Memories are what moor us to the world, and they’re also what make it so difficult for us to move through it freely. They may not be accurate, but they tend not to change once the die is cast; when something is printed on the film of our minds, it’s often projected through us for the rest of our lives.
Lumir grows up with the memory — real or imagined — that Fabienne was a ruthless mother, and everything that happens between them in the present tense is filtered through that past. Nothing in “The Truth” is more uncomfortably honest than the notion that families are cast much like films are cast; once people settle into their roles, it can become impossible to imagine them being played differently, or by anyone else. The beauty of Kore-eda’s movie, which is sometimes buried too deep beneath frilly layers of light comic froth, is in the rhetorical way it wonders if it’s possible for people to separate themselves from those performances. Is there anything else? When does the acting stop?
A lesser film might use “Memories of My Mother” as a clear demarcation, but “The Truth” excels by reaching deeper into fiction. Deneuve’s meta casting never allows her character to dissolve into the fabric of Fabienne’s family, and Binoche compounds the impact of her celebrity whenever these two legendary actresses share the screen (conversely, Deneuve and Binoche are both so natural that it hardly seems like they’re acting at all). It also helps that a heavyweight of Ethan Hawke’s caliber plays Lumir’s sweet American husband, a “second-rate television actor” and alcoholic who often tells their daughter he’s on location when he’s actually in rehab. It may have been a while since he booked a real gig, but he’s constantly performing for his own kid, lying today so that it will be easier for her to love him tomorrow.
“The Truth” lacks the tear-jerking dramatic oomph that swells beneath so many of Kore-eda’s best films, but it gingerly eases forward with the kind of sensitivity and emotional intelligence that only a master storyteller can bring to the table; it’s not on par with “Shoplifters” or “After Life,” but it could never have existed without either of them, or several of the movies in between. This is a story that recognizes how family is a living thing, and how dangerous it can be to place all your trust in any memory that refuses to make room for a new one. Eventually, Lumir asks Fabienne “Do you love yourself, or do you love film?” Fabienne replies: “I love the films I’m in.” In a movie full of lies, it’s a moment that feels as true as anything Kore-eda has ever made.
“The Truth” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival. IFC will release it in theaters later this year.