Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda teams up with Catherine Deneuve for an intimate French family drama
I love intimate French dramas where people, particularly relatives, tell each other unpleasant truths. The French are, to generalize wildly, so very good at this. They don’t take a lot of shit, and they have a wonderful ability to say the bluntest things imaginable to their loved ones and look great doing it. I think Isabelle Huppert might be the reigning champ, but Catherine Deneuve is no slouch either.
THE TRUTH ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Written by: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Ken Liu
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke
Running time: 106 min
Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda offers his spin on this genre with The Truth, in which Deneuve plays a legendary film actress, Fabienne, whose New York-dwelling screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) has come back to visit her in Paris for the publication of her mother’s memoir.
With her American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and young daughter in tow, Lumir is clearly returning to a lion’s den of a relationship, where parenthood was always low on the list of her famous mother’s list of priorities. (At one point Fabienne literally says she’d rather be a good actress than a good mother, so there’s not a ton of subtext to wade through.)
In a pointed underscoring of that fraught relationship, Fabienne is in the process of shooting a sci-fi movie in which she plays the aging daughter of a mother (Manon Clavel, playing an actress also named Manon) who stays young because she’s spent most of her life in space. Or maybe she keeps coming back from space periodically? I’m not sure, and I don’t think The Truth feels compelled to clarify. Anyway, Manon reminds everyone of someone named Sara, who appears to have been a much-beloved actress relative of Fabienne’s, though it’s never totally clear. Also, as my husband pointed out with an eye-roll as he wandered through the living room, movies in which all the characters are in the entertainment business do feel a little lazy.
The Truth has flaws, and it feels small-screen to me, although I suppose that’s true of every movie that comes out right now. But Catherine Deneuve is a total delight as the fabulous, frank Fabienne. In the film’s first scene, she’s at home, midway through being interviewed by a journalist who spots Lumir out the window. He wonders if they should stop the interview? “It’s nothing,” she tells him. “Just my daughter and her little family.” Ouch!
She has a great raised-eyebrow slight about her son-in-law calling himself an actor–Hawke gamely hangs around in the background for most of this film–and has a lot of fun with her bilingual granddaughter, who reasonably thinks she might be a witch. There’s a running joke about how she’s turned her ex-husband Pierre into the giant tortoise who lives in Fabienne’s yard, though he shows up in human form (Roger van Hool) for one tipsy evening and then disappears again.
Lumir, by contrast, is perpetually rumpled and a little dowdy, which you know has to be a heavy lift for Binoche. She’s clearly been dealing with her mom’s diva behavior forever. When Lumir obtains a copy of the memoir–also called “The Truth”–she quickly realizes its title is a stretch, painting a prettied-up version of Lumir’s childhood of semi-benign neglect.
The rest of the film follows the travails of the family as they try to love one another anyway, and Kore-eda’s gentle touch makes this process humane rather than harrowing.
If you really want to see what Kore-eda is capable of in a family drama, though, I’d suggest going backwards in his catalogue. A lot of people will probably point you to 2018’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, but I would suggest 2015’s Our Little Sister. It’s an underrated gem of a movie about three adult siblings who discover the existence of a younger half-sister they take under their wing. Not a ton happens. The family prepares meals, eats them with gusto, and airs secrets. There are a bunch of charming small-town vignettes that feel like the Japanese version of Stars Hollow. I came away wanting to spend more time with all of them – whereas after an hour and 46 minutes of this family’s “Truth,” I was ready to get on with my own.