In Hirokazu Koreeda’s last film, the Oscar®-nominated SHOPLIFTERS, he incisively examined the ethics of capitalism, and its effects on one poverty-stricken, yet devoted, ragtag family ingeniously doing battle with a system designed to keep them down economically. In THE TRUTH, he moves the action from Tokyo to Paris to examine the ethics of veracity on a distinctly upscale, yet contentious, family each striving to live his or her own truth, the which is often in conflict with that of the other members of the group. It’s no less incisive, no less cutting about the injuries we inflict on one another, but at the same time, it is just as humane in judging its characters as they muddle along the best they can.
Catherine Deneuve is nothing short of spectacular as the prickly Fabienne, a vain, emotionally unavailable, very famous French actress of a certain age coming to unexpected terms with her life’s choices. In lesser filmic hands, a less nuanced script, an actress succumbing to the temptation to pander to an audience or unable to shade her performance with the contradictions and complexities of the character, it would be a pedestrian study of a broken family. But Deneuve and Koreeda demand more from themselves and the audience. So when Fabienne’s semi-estranged, deliberately anti-glam screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) arrives with her American actor husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and precocious young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). As Hank notes in passing, he’s not seen Fabienne since the wedding, though Lumir and Charlotte have. The event that has brought them all together is the release of Fabienne’s memoir, a recollection that, we quickly learn, has little to do with actual events, and more to do with Fabienne’s re-ordering of reality to suit her own needs.
In the course of events, may truths are spoken, as one would presume in a film where the daughter studies the memoir, placing so many post-it notes on the “facts” that she disputes, that the slim tome fairly bristles with peevish rows of them. Not unlike the way Lumir bristles, come to think of it. The interplay between mother and daughter gives Koreeda the opening he needs to rethink Pilate’s question, wiz to wit, what is truth?
Which isn’t to say that it’s the tricks of memory that are the culprit as Lumir challenges Fabienne’s recollections of the former’s childhood, nor the conversations about a long-dead actress who had been Fabienne’s rival in her younger days. Koreeda, in a bold and brilliant move, never quite explains what more there might have been between the actresses that caused Lumir to retains such a passionate devotion to her years after her death. It’s not the specifics that are important, it’s the emotional residue that colors the past and informs the present. It explains, beyond mere ego, the calculated cruelty that Fabienne exhibits towards Manon (Manon Clavel) the rising star who plays a never-aging mother to Fabienne in her latest film. A film in which her part is little more than a cameo, though a part that is beefed up once Fabienne signs on.
Deneuve, tricked out in leopard-print coats, satiny kimonos, and haute couture, has lost none of her legendary, icy beauty, nor the hot undercurrent that fueled her performances. Beneath the implacable exterior of a woman who has never uttered an apology in her life, Deneuve finds an unexpected and compelling vulnerability, the need to dominate and to control every situation springing directly from an unquenchable neediness rather than malevolence. When she insults Hank to his face about his acting skills, there is a defensiveness in the insouciant hauteur, delivered with the same detachment evinced in her insults to the hapless journalist interviewing her at the start of the film. Binoche’s Lumir, wary, canny, and infinitely savvy when it comes to her mother, is tough, but just as vulnerable in ways that complement her mother. It makes for an odd, yet logical, twist when Lumir becomes, in effect, her mother’s adult supervision during the film shoot.
As the often wildly funny drama plays out, lies are told to convey the truth of feelings, truths are unspoken for the same reasons, and Charlotte, fascinated by what she assumes are Fabienne’s magical powers, tells a whopper for the sheer delight of watching a child actress’ face.
The men of the piece, a husband, or are there two, a factotum, and a tortoise of great age and malleable identity, are occasional catalysts for the main action, but this is a story fueled by estrogen and the revelation that no one person can be everything to another. THE TRUTH acknowledges the pain of that revelation when it arrives, but also its inescapable, ahem, truth.