Every Hirokazu Kore-eda film boasts a line, or several in succession, that summarizes the entire movie with devastating precision. Actually, every feature by the 2018 Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker has many snippets of dialogue that fit this description, with the Japanese Still Walking, Our Little Sister and The Third Murder auteur as skilled a screenwriter as he is as a director. Accordingly, it should come as little surprise that he starts The Truth, his first project made outside of Japan and in a language other than Japanese, with a telling conversation between veteran actor Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) and a journalist. The former is releasing a memoir, the pair chat about her career, and the star doesn’t hold back. It’s a character-defining sequence, and one that instantly establishes an image of Fabienne with the audience. That said, in terms of astutely encapsulating The Truth from the outset, it comes second to another exchange.
As Fabienne holds court with the admiring writer penning her profile, her US-based adult daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) and granddaughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) arrive at the house, entering through the overgrown garden. Visiting Paris for the first time since she was a baby — so, for the first time that she can remember — the pre-teen Charlotte peers up at the Fabienne’s towering home and declares “the house looks like a castle”. It’s a statement befitting a child entering a new realm, and an apt one about an abode belonging to someone considered entertainment royalty. Lumir doesn’t completely agree, though, as driven by the enduring legacy of a childhood that The Truth spends its running time unpacking. “Yes, it does,” she tells her visibly excited daughter, “even though there’s a prison behind it”.
A screenwriter herself, Lumir is speaking literally as well as metaphorically — and it’s the latter, the tension that lingers in her fraught bond with Fabienne, the trapped sensation she clearly feels in her mother’s presence, and the reasons for all of the above, that Kore-eda is interested in. He’s no stranger to complicated family dynamics, festering emotions that people keep from their nearest and dearest, or the ways in which his titular concept can mean many different things in an intimate relationship. Indeed, he’s spent his three-decade filmmaking career not just exploring these very elements of everyday life, but quietly and patiently observing the effects and impact in action. Spanning far beyond the Cannes-topping Shoplifters, he has the teeming resume to prove it. With The Truth, however, Kore-eda both favors what he’s always done best and ensures that it’s not only universal, but also fresh and authentic.
Some aspects of and circumstances in life — some truths, even — apply to everyone, of course. And yet, they always feel unique and distinctive to those experiencing them. Kore-eda understands this fact, as witnessed in the context of his entire filmography and in The Truth itself. And so, as Lumir spends more time with Fabienne — a situation sparked by the sudden resignation of her mother’s long-term personal assistant (Alain Libolt) just as she’s shooting her next big film role — they wade through their different perceptions of their shared past. What’s true, what both women have decided is true and what they’ve told the world is true all comes into sharp focus, as does the conflict between and motivations for each. Fabienne’s book is the catalyst, although a plethora of other elements also add complexity: the nature of Fabienne’s new project, which centers on a mother and daughter; her professional envy over a younger colleague (Manon Clavel); her evident and stinging disapproval of fellow actor Hank; the ever-present Charlotte’s unwavering curiosity; and the arrival of Lumir’s father Pierre (Roger Van Hool).
Kore-eda is an insightful writer and possesses an empathetic eye as a filmmaker, two traits that are intrinsically linked. Proof ripples throughout The Truth, especially when he’s simply letting the camera bear witness to his characters in-conversation; the standard mid-shot, capturing two figures talking, has rarely felt as revealing as it does in his hands. He’s just as exceptional at working with his actors, though, a skill that can’t be underestimated in any of his features. And while it’d be easy to chalk The Truth’s excellent performances up to stellar casting, which the film undoubtedly benefits from — as is to be expected when greats such as Deneuve, Binoche and Hawke share frames — there’s a combination of both looseness and depth to the movie’s central portrayals that’s trademark Kore-eda. Getting Deneuve to play a doyen of acting mightn’t seem a stretch, nor tasking Binoche and Hawke to grapple with mid-life struggles, but they’re especially vibrant and incisive yet naturalistic. Those words epitomize Kore-eda’s work, too, with The Truth a classic addition to his always-impressive resume.