There is almost always a ghost in a Hirokazu Kore-eda film, even though he’s never made an actual ghost story. His ghosts are not literal phantoms but rather memories of the departed that bear on the present and refuse to go away: Sometimes it’s a family member who has recently passed, leaving their belongings and the emotional detritus of their lives for everyone else to deal with; sometimes it’s a distant, long-gone figure who still looms over the lives of those he or she left behind. (In what might be the Japanese director’s most acclaimed film, 1998’s After Life, the tables are turned; the characters are all people who have died, choosing which moment of their lives they’d like to relive in the beyond. In that movie, the departed are the ones haunted by the world.)
In The Truth, the director’s first film made outside of Japan, the spectral presence makes for a somewhat awkward fit, a thematic add-on that, even as it informs the story and the characters, also underlines what’s not quite working in the picture. Kore-eda has gone through a golden period in recent years. Leading up to his Palme d’Or win at Cannes in 2018 for Shoplifters, he had released several masterpieces or near masterpieces, in a remarkable run that included such titles as The Third Murder (2017), After the Storm (2016), Our Little Sister (2015), and Like Father, Like Son (2013). Although the director has always followed his own muse, it is perhaps a no-brainer that he has been given the chance to make a movie in French and English with major international stars. Adapted from a play Kore-eda apparently left half-finished many years ago, The Truth follows veteran actress Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve), who has just published her tell-all memoirs (titled, of course, The Truth), as she performs in a sentimental science-fiction film opposite Manon (Manon Clavel), a rising young actress who is apparently drawing comparisons to Sarah Mondavan, an acclaimed performer who died 40 years ago. Sarah’s death, we learn, might have had something to do with the fact that the once-ambitious Fabienne, her dear friend, stole her big part by sleeping with their director. But there seems to have been more to Fabienne and Sarah’s relationship: Fabienne’s screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), visiting mom in Paris with her kind, dim-bulb actor husband (Ethan Hawke), recalls Sarah as a more powerful presence in her life than her own mother was. Fabienne, the still-resentful Lumir informs us, was usually absent, off on a shoot or just off drinking — even though the mother claims otherwise in her memoirs.
There’s a lot to unpack there already, but the movie Fabienne is currently shooting adds to the allegorical clutter. It’s a sci-fi drama about a young, terminally ill mother who goes off to live in space, where apparently her illness can’t progress, and then returns home at seven-year intervals, which means she stays the same age while her daughter, a mere child when mom first left, gets older and older. Indeed, it’s the ingénue Manon who plays the mother, and aging icon Fabienne who plays the daughter. (This fake movie, called Memories of My Mother, suggests a Pedro Almodóvar remake of Interstellar, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend much of The Truth wishing I were watching that instead.) As the shoot progresses, the cantankerous, self-absorbed, forgetful Fabienne fires her assistant of many decades, which means that Lumir now has to tend to her aging movie star mom’s many, and increasing, demands. A daughter becoming a parent to her own mother — beneath all that clunky symbolism, that’s one of the more affecting ideas at the heart of The Truth. Another is the fallibility of our subjectivity: How we pick and choose our memories to fit the narratives we build for ourselves, and how the neglect we sense in others might often be the result of shame or fear on their end. Ripe territory for Kore-eda — the ever-shifting dynamics of families has always been his great subject. Here, those changes are measured not so much in actions but in attitudes. Everybody in this movie has a different idea of the person they are to others; the truth of who they are, if such a thing can even be said to exist, probably lies somewhere in between.
These are all interesting, moving ideas, but they’re all just kind of hanging out in The Truth, drawing attention to themselves without ever really developing in a way that doesn’t feel manufactured. Kore-eda is a master of the light touch, of gentle rhythms and casual conversations that never push deeper meanings onto us: The beauty of his films is that you sort of lose yourself in their worlds, and then the Things They’re About begin to emerge organically. (This is key, because, let’s face it, “the ever-shifting dynamics of families” is also the subject of Daddy’s Home 2, not to mention countless other movies.) The Truth possesses the observational power and intimacy we would expect from a Kore-eda work, and we recognize the quiet cadences of the director’s storytelling, but the film also has an uncharacteristic air of desperation and insistency. Everything — every scene, every line of dialogue — feels like it’s working toward a point. Which, when you think about it, is a good way to never actually make a point. Maybe it’s that Western actors, or at least big-name Western actors, need more motivations and obvious through lines. Or maybe it’s the difficulty of working in a foreign language. But there’s a programmed quality to The Truth that feels off, and undermines Kore-eda’s behavioral style of filmmaking.
The picture is most effective in its most glancing, throwaway instances. Binoche’s most powerful scene occurs while her face is out of focus, in the background; a little cutaway to Ethan Hawke goofing around with some kids at a dinner table speaks volumes about him and his relationships; Deneuve’s most telling character bits come in her brief responses to the cups of tea she constantly consumes. At such moments, we are reminded that we are in the presence of one of the world’s great filmmakers. Sadly, in The Truth, those moments are few and far between.
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