The Truth July 13, 2020
1 Hr., 46 Mins.
abienne (Catherine Deneuve), a legendary French actress in her 70s, is about to release a memoir. It’s called “The Truth,” and it is to mark the first time she’s extensively opened herself up to the public. She apparently told her middle-aged daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter who lives in America with her flagging actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their elementary-school-aged daughter Charlotte
(Clémentine Grenier), that she would be able to read the manuscript before publication. But Fabienne, it seems, hasn’t followed through on her promise. In the opening scene of The Truth (2020), the sporadically effective new drama from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda (it’s his first time not working in his home country), she is being interviewed by a film journalist about her life and career to commemorate the memoir’s release.
“I’ve always been myself,” Fabienne tells the writer when he asks who her influences are. But it’s made apparent, early on in the movie, that Fabienne’s true self can only be found by dismantling several layers, all of which lie underneath a steamrolling exterior. When Lumir, family in tow, comes to France for a few days, mostly so she can read and then discuss the book with her mother, she discovers that the memoir has a tendency to both excise and fabricate extensively. After staying up all night zipping angrily through its pages, marking its most brazen half-truths and flat-out lies in multi-colored sticky notes, Lumir confronts her mother the next morning. Fabienne blows off the former’s accusations with a couple of telling comments. She first responds to her daughter by asking her to not bring this up just now — she’s practicing her lines for her newest movie and doesn’t want to get distracted. Then she confesses that “I’m an actress; I won’t tell the naked truth — it’s far from interesting.”
It’s immediately clear what kind of movie The Truth is going to be: a study of a living screen icon, and of how retaining her greatness has put a damper on all of her relationships; a fraught family drama in which the release of an image-preserving (and thus largely fictional) autobiography evinces long tucked-away interpersonal troubles. All this unfolds as Fabienne is shooting a new movie — an obviously titled science-fiction drama called “Memories of My Mother.” In the project, she plays the 73-year-old version of a woman who grows up with a mother who cyclically disappears and reappears for years on end and never ages. (A convoluted way for Kore-eda to suggest that Lumir always felt like she grew up more with the celebrated image and idea of her mother than an actual one, if you ask me.) “It won’t be a great film,” Fabienne curtly muses.
Kore-eda has a good ear for dialogue. And in moments the feature can be perceptive, especially when functioning as a rumination on how this older performer’s long-term reign has encumbered, or, more dramatically, come at the cost of, any kind of emotional closeness with virtually anyone. Fabienne has for so long been more interested in career conservation than she has been in protecting her relationships that now, when there is really no need to so assiduously maintain her image, she has few people who legitimately, rather than obligatorily, care for her. She fails to once mention her assistant, who has worked with her for four decades, in the memoir. This leads him to promptly quit and impulsively assign Lumir to take over his duties in the meantime. Lumir is apoplectic when she finds out that Fabienne has painted herself in writing as a devoted mother. In reality, Lumir was mostly raised by a now-dead actress whose career Fabienne, both publicly and privately, is believed to have destroyed to safeguard her own.
Extensions of her toxic need to demonstrate her sense of superiority are almost everywhere: memorably on set, where she is unceasingly cold to her director and distrustful of her younger co-stars, who have to almost stop themselves from fawning over her; memorably, in one particularly well-constructed scene specifically, where she lambasts Hank’s steadily declining (and barely there to begin with) acting career mostly to put him down further.
n actress less exacting than Deneuve might lean into the bluster of the role — give it at least a few notes of Shirley MacLaine-style domination. Think Postcards from the Edge (1990). But the actress, who since forever has been known colloquially as “the ice maiden,” is so understated and scrupulous that Fabienne can unnerve. Her exactitude and willingness to scheme behind the scenes (which we
hear about often) to bolster her career formed in part as means to survive in a demanding industry that, decades ago, was more hostile than it is now. But how much of one’s humanity can get lost when such attributes remain so well-tended to for decades? The Truth releases a long-gestating urge from Fabienne’s loved ones to question rather than continue to accept it. The movie never exactly reaches a conventional breaking point. Instead, frustrations of characters are revealed intermittently throughout the film, ensuring no final, satisfactory resolution. Could there be one at this point?
The Truth is never too revelatory. Its dialogue is precise, and we’re never lost when it comes to understanding the root cause of its various interpersonal dilemmas. But the inner lives of these characters are not much prodded. The dynamic between Lumir and the family with whom she has built a life in America is not given much air time. We don’t know what exactly has drawn Lumir and Hank to creative fields, and why they’re motivated to remain adaptable as individual struggles prove more commonplace than success. What is it like to have a mostly thankless career when you are related to a titan? (Hawke isn’t able, like Binoche, to make the most of an underwritten part; he spends most of the feature looking bemused, since his character is unable to contribute to conversations predominantly conducted in French.) The movie doesn’t explore how Fabienne’s own shortcomings as a mother might have had an effect on Lumir’s maternal desires and beliefs — surprising, given Kore-eda’s plain interest in showcasing what toll Fabienne’s careerism has taken generationally.
The film never eclipses its recognizable premise. It’s a pleasure to see this trio of actors together, but their work’s potency is diminished by a script that only does so much examining. The Truth is especially disappointing compared to Kore-eda’s last movie, Shoplifters (2018), whose characterizations were comparatively profound. The film was structured ingeniously by Kore-eda to make our discoveries of who these people authentically were part of what made the movie so heartrending. The Truth can be observant and delectably wry periodically. The disconnect between Binoche’s and Deneuve’s characters feels just right for a mother-daughter duo whose relationship has always been lopsided. But it’s too uncluttered and inconsistently introspective to stir. Whatever truth is trying to be located remained, to my eye, as ultimately inscrutable as Deneuve’s Fabienne. C+