After taking home the Palme d’Or in 2018 for Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda caps off the decade with his first film not in Japanese. He brings together 3 phenomenally talented actors – Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke – to tell the story of a celebrated actress coming to terms with her own obsolescence in an industry that emphasizes the young and new. All three performances are fantastic, and though the story feels like an altered version of Olivier Assayas’ masterful Clouds of Sils Maria (even retaining one of its major stars), Kore-eda injects enough of his own sensibilities to make The Truth feel less like a retread than a delight in its own right.
To be fair, the plot of The Truth isn’t all that similar to Sils Maria, except for the main character of Fabienne (Deneuve), an aging French actress struggling to keep her confidence as her personal issues begin to permeate into her professional work. Binoche plays her daughter Lumir, a modestly successful screenwriter, and Hawke plays Lumir’s American husband Hank, an actor whose work and talent is often dismissed by Fabienne. When Lumir and Hank come to France to visit Fabienne as she works on her new film, their somewhat contentious, borderline estranged, relationship is intensified by Fabienne’s austere and coarse demeanor, leading to caged feelings and long-held resentments being exposed.
While Sils Maria featured scenes of Binoche running lines with Kristen Stewart that were intricately layered with subtext to the point where the line between the hostility in the scene and the power dynamics of their professional relationship became indistinguishable, The Truth takes a much simpler approach to the character dynamics. Yes, there is deep-seated resentment between Fabienne and Lumir, and their family history is slowly revealed over the film’s runtime, but Kore-eda places a heavier emphasis on clarity, letting the scenes of familial arguments play out openly and naturally. The fact that Hank doesn’t speak French adds an interesting dynamic in that he’s shielded from Fabienne’s venomous insults, more willing to forgive her cruel behavior since he can’t experience it directly.
If it sounds like Fabienne’s demeanor casts a dreary spell over the film, it’s quite the opposite. Deneuve plays Fabienne as magnetic and charming, so much so that even when she’s cold or hostile, we sense the underlying remorse burdening her. When Lumir visits the set of Fabienne’s new film, it compounds the pressure put on her. She can’t keep up with her beautiful, young scene partner, and she often makes mistakes, which causes her to feel suffocated by her own insecurity. These moments of transparent vulnerability are devastating to Fabienne, and even though we’ve been yearning to see her open up, it’s heartbreaking to see her struggle to maintain her composure.
Deneuve does so much with her body language, both in the scenes at her home and on set, instilling a deep pathos into her character to the point where you can’t help but want to give her a hug. There’s a delightful scene in the middle of the film in which she and Hank get drunk together, unable to properly communicate with each other (due to the language barrier), and we see her resentment of him fade away as she views his gleeful optimism as a virtue of his uncorrupted spirit. It’s a brief, but impactful sequence of levity that’s quickly grounded when Lumir reprimands Hank for getting drunk in the very next scene.
Kore-eda’s work often focuses on the importance of maintaining strong bonds with family, and The Truth is no different, though it’s biggest misstep is introducing Lumir’s father to the mix in the film’s second act. His scenes are the least engaging, as his character is mostly superfluous to the central story and main character arcs. His inclusion feels more like Kore-eda relying on his tried-and-true formula and themes rather than exploring new territory. But even in its less interesting stretches, it’s still immensely satisfying to watch these legendary actors work together.
It certainly won’t convert those who find Kore-eda’s dialogue-heavy narratives and relaxed pacing too slow for their tastes, but The Truth is a characteristically heart-warming and sentimental film that serves as a perfect showcase for three of the best actors working today. It’s an undoubtedly minor film compared to Shoplifters or Clouds of Sils Maria, but still worth seeing for the performances alone.