Last August, when Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth opened the Venice Film Festival, seems so very, very long ago. With a cast headlined by Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke, Kore-eda’s first feature shot outside of Japan was warmly received but quickly forgotten as debates flared up over the two eventual winners of Venice’s top awards, Todd Phillips’s Joker and Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy.The Truth went home empty-handed—quite a contrast to the reception of Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018), the story of an ad hoc family teetering on the edge of abject poverty and the winner of the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Now that The Truth has reemerged for a virtual release in the U.S., Lidija Haas, writing for the New Republic, finds that it is “as if Kore-eda set himself the challenge of Shoplifters in reverse: Instead of drawing audiences closer to lives usually hidden, he shows them people they expect to know inside out.”
Deneuve plays Fabienne, a self-absorbed grande dame of French cinema, and in Filmmaker, Kore-eda tells Daniel Eagan that Deneuve kept insisting on set that she was nothing at all like her. “Right before each take,” says the director, “she would say, ‘If I say this, everybody will hate me,’ and then go ahead and do it.” The imminent publication of Fabienne’s memoir occasions a visit from her daughter, Lumir (Binoche), a screenwriter living in New York who has brought along her husband Hank (Hawke), an actor struggling with alcoholism, and their young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). Lumir is infuriated to discover that her childhood is depicted in Fabienne’s book as idyllic when she herself remembers it as anything but.
To Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club, The Truth “feels politely generic—too assured to be the work of a novice, but not detailed enough to make a strong impression.” Part of the problem in his view is that “the central relationship here feels atypically simplistic, aligning the viewer’s sympathy almost exclusively with Lumir.” But for Robert Abele in the Los Angeles Times,The Truth is “light, loose, and funny, a generational dance performed by pros—Binoche sweating out steps around Deneuve’s just-so movements.” At RogerEbert.com, Odie Henderson agrees that while “Binoche is very good here,” this is “definitely Deneuve’s show.”
These two major French stars of international cinema have never before appeared on-screen together, and the New Yorker’s Richard Brody sees in their pairing an instructive juxtaposition. As Fabienne, Deneuve “both embodies the absolute discipline of a full-time diva and the ambient harshness of pre-1968 France. Born in 1943, schooled in the era depicted by François Truffaut in The 400 Blows, Deneuve here represents an age of collective rigid order and casual aggression, a time of frankness that inflicts emotional punishment along with stern discipline. By contrast, Binoche—a child of the ’60s and ’70s, like Lumir—embodies, in her looser gestures and freer manner, the post-’68 generation of liberalized mores and humanistic values . . . It’s this extraordinary dramatization of France’s crucial generational divide, and its cinematic implications, that gives The Truth its resonance beyond the emotional specifics of the drama, potent though they often are.”
To return to Daniel Eagan’s interview, one of the many topics discussed is what differentiates this film from the rest of Kore-eda’s work—besides, of course, language and location. Kore-eda is eager to give much of the credit to cinematographer Eric Gautier, whose many credits include Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996), Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008), and Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White (2018). “Originally,” says Kore-eda, “I had thought the camerawork in the film it would be much quieter. Less movement, I suppose, in a way. So that was reflected in the storyboards I initially brought for Eric to look at. But what I discovered is that you can do things in large French houses that you can’t do in Japanese ones, which tend to have pillars and steps up and down to different levels. For instance, Eric was able to have a really nice dolly shot across two large rooms, and do it with great agility. So now I think I’m grateful to him for helping keep the movie from becoming too quiet.”
What Eagan finds especially surprising is that, after the screenplay had incubated for seventeen years, after several weeks of shooting, and after Kore-eda spent six months in the editing room, The Truth “still feels as light as air.” And that is precisely what Kore-eda was after. “I wanted this film to feel gentle and refreshing,” he says. “I really owe that to Catherine Deneuve, to the light touch in her performance.”
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