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Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) is an aging, self-consumed and arrogant film actress with a nasty streak, still in demand but a trifle anxious as she finds herself in the final stage of a glorious 40-year career. Her experience as a mother (of Lumir [Juliette Binoche], a Hollywood screenwriter in middle age) has been decidedly less successful. As the family gathers in Fabienne’s enormous Paris house to celebrate her recently published, highly fabricated memoir, it becomes clear that Lumir has been hurt and damaged by her mother’s excessive focus on her work—in a word, unloved (“Don’t call me ‘Mom,’” says Fabienne). Fabienne uses truth as a weapon when she chooses, as when she disparages the ability of Lumir’s B-grade TV-actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), accusing him of doing mere “imitations.” When Fabienne’s long-time personal assistant, Luc Garbois (Alain Libolt), discovers that the memoir doesn’t even mention him, he quits and leaves. She’s not a nice person.
[Right, Koreeda flanked by Deneuve (right) and Binoche (left).]
“The Truth” is an “emotional journey” film—the cold, heartless protagonist learns to value human relationships—an industry staple, especially for Hollywood. Because men are stereotypically understood to exist on the “rational” side of the scale, and women on the “emotional,” the transformation usually involves a man, as in “Regarding Henry” (1991), a Harrison Ford vehicle in which an uncaring lawyer discovers he needs people when he gets shot and loses his memory. Like “Regarding Henry,” such films can be popular with audiences, who eagerly await the expected payoff, but critics usually mark them as obvious and contrived. “The Truth” is certainly contrived, but in a way that complicates rather than simplifies. And the protagonist is a woman in this female-centered film.
Koreeda makes his narrative more interesting by employing a film-within-the-film.
The screenplay of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Shoplifters,” 2018) will eventually arrive at something like that “Regarding Henry” moment of personal transformation, but the moment will be complex, as will be getting to it. Koreeda makes his narrative more interesting by employing a film-within-the-film, a device that dates back farther than Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (the play within the play) and has filmic antecedents in “The Salesman” (a play within the film; Asghar Farhadi, 2016) and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (films within the film; Quentin Tarantino, 2019). Koreeda uses the device, which here includes travel to outer space, to expand our knowledge of Fabienne, who in the film-within-the-film is forced to reassess her fraught relationship with Sarah (evoking Bernhard), an actress with whom Fabienne was competitive and who died some 40 years ago. But the device is also inherently metaphorical—one world tells us about the other—and in this case the spaceship metaphor, a stand-in for Fabienne’s absence and abandonment of her daughter, tells us nothing we don’t already suspect.
As the title perhaps too obviously suggests, the film is also a meditation on truth—and on the role of memory (and the memoir) in determining what is “true” and what isn’t. As the mother-daughter relationship is probed, it becomes apparent that Lumir’s childhood memories are hardly infallible. Much turns on Lumir’s performance as a child in a play, “The Wizard of Oz,” and on whether Fabienne attended or did not, and, if she did, what she thought of her daughter’s acting. Lumir’s critique of her mother’s parenting is weakened by Lumir’s inattention to her own daughter (men—all peripheral characters—perform the domestic tasks in the film). Fabienne’s granddaughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), effectively ends the film with the line “is it true or not?” an ambiguous question that could refer to whether Fabienne loves Charlotte, whether Charlotte will become a talented actress, or something about going into space.
The emotional denouement is satisfying only in its messiness.
The emotional denouement is satisfying only in its messiness. While there’s reason to believe that mother and daughter will achieve a measure of reconciliation, the physical expression of that moment seems out of character for both of them. Fabienne appears to have arrived at a new understanding of what that relationship requires—it’s okay now for Lumir to call her “Mom”—but her ill-timed revelation that her newly acquired emotional range will be useful on the set is guaranteed to set the rapprochement back, and it’s shocking to the viewer. It’s hard to know if that moment strengthens the film or vitiates its power.
Koreeda dispenses with the subtlety that marked the Tokyo-set “Shoplifters,” where new definitions of family and emotional attachment were developed in the context of social inequity. Instead, the talented Japanese director here uses a star-studded international cast to trot out themes that are palpably familiar. The basic elements that compose “The Truth”—the premise of an “emotional journey,” the film-within-the-film device, the in-your-face examination of the concept of truth, the careerist woman who fails as a mother, the aging actress threatened by a younger one—lend the film a mechanical quality (as if it were assembled from modules) that can make it difficult for the viewer to become deeply involved. To the extent that’s not the case, credit the uniformly superb acting—compelling performances by Deneuve and Binoche, well supported by a half dozen others.
Date: 2019; US 2020
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Clémentine Grenier, Luc Garbois, Manon Clavel
Country: France, Japan, Switzerland
Languages: French, English; French subtitled in English
Runtime: 106 minutes