This is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film not made in Japan, or Japanese. I loved his Shoplifters, the story of a petty-criminal family living on the edge which won the Palme D’Or on 2018. The Truth opened last year’s Venice to a rather muted response. I have to admit – to my great disappointment – that my reaction is similar.
Kore-eda sticks to is genre of family drama in all its complexities. Here we have an imperiously haughty Catherine Deneuve, grande dame of French cinema Fabienne Dangeville, who has just published her memoir, the eponymous La Verité. Her screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) is summoned for the launch along with her second-rate actor husband played by Ethan Hawke (as she says at one point he’s a better lover than actor) and their adorable daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier).
From the outset it is clear that this is a tricky mother-daughter relationship. La Verité turns out to be a pack of lies, in particular the sections relating to Lumir; Fabienne makes out she was a devoted mother seeing her school plays and picking her up from school every day – in fact she was always filming. Her long-suffering assistant Luc (Alain Libolt)doesn’t even get a mention and quits.
The situation is made more complicated by Fabienne’s current shoot, her swansong. To her chagrin she is playing the daughter of a young and beautiful actress in a sci-fi film, ironically called Memories of my Mother. In the film the ‘mother’ has a life threatening illness and travels in time and space, so she is younger and more beautiful than her daughter. Lumir is quick to point out how like her nemesis she is, a close friend and actress who died in mysterious circumstances and who Fabienne cheated out of a role that won her a treasured César. Like the true diva she is, she is damming in her derision of this new upstart and of the movie itself, refusing to learn her lines and turn up for rehearsals.
Deneuve controls this film – one wonders almost if she is acting the part – despite the presence of Binoche, normally mesmerising in her own right. Here she is feisty but on a losing wicket as her mama is impervious to any of her criticism, preferring to believe her own lies about the past. This is good Kore-eda territory, dealing with difficult inter-familial relationships, but normally there is a feeling of a direction of travel. Here we are waiting for some sort of destination, a denouement if you like. There is one, of a kind, and it is almost satisfying but not as captivating as most of his movies.
In other ways the movie entertains – the film within a film mechanism is pertinent; many of the problems between Fabienne and Lumir can be viewed through the lens of the young director, and distilled through that of Kore-eda into a relevance that gives sustenance to the main plot. The characterisation and the banter is amusing; Fabienne’s narcissisms, and the smoke and whisky-fuelled attacks on other great actors, like her lip curl at the mention of Brigitte Bardot. She mercilessly flirts with, and then torments, her son-in-law as well as poor Lumir who, cat-like, seeks to straighten things out as she prowls around her mother, eventually turning the tables and using Charlotte to play a trick on her that seesk to rebalances the power dynamic.
As in most of Kore-eda’s films there are no answers, just a recognition that family relationships, in this case mother/daughter, are always complex. However, without the overlay of the multi-layered Japanese cultural context which makes his films so fascinating, The Truth lacks an oomph that would list it among his greats.