Deneuve and Binoche Play Mother and Daughter Coming to Terms with Family Secrets in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Tepid Drama The Truth

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If you remember Shoplifters, which took home the Palm d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, told the almost unbearably intimate and poignant story of a family cobbled together from the remnants of others barely surviving in Tokyo, going about their business until a chance encounter with a little girl changed their entire world.

The topic he chose — based on a short story by Ken Liu — comes under the form of another domestic drama in which an aging, narcissistic actress has written a book she claims to be the autobiographical truth, but whom others who know her well, see otherwise. Assembling a cast headlined by French giants Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and bringing in Ethan Hawke for good measure, The Truth begins with Deneuve, who plays Fabienne (which happens to be Deneuve’s middle name), an actress starring in a science fiction movie in which her character, a space explorer, never ages, and has a complicated relationship with her mother (Manon Clavel).

When Fabienne’s daughter Lumir (Binoche) and her husband Hank (Hawke) arrive with precocious daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) in tow, Lumir sort of preps Hank, an actor himself albeit struggling, into meeting her mother, but that’s not the central part of Kore-eda’s movie. Lumir discovers that her mother’s memoirs are riddled with inaccuracies, almost as if she chose not to include them in order to make her story seem more idealized for the reading audience. It soon emerges that buried deep in Fabienne’s book is a glaring omission that Fabienne herself chooses not to acknowledge, a thing that starts to affect the mother-daughter relation.

That omission morphs into the elephant in the room, and leave it to Deneuve and Binoche to tackle each other not with barbs but restraint and sometimes snarky humor. One gets the feeling that these two, who interestingly mirrors the mother-daughter relationship of the movie within a movie, know each other way too well to let things go, but somehow manage to not make a terrible scene of it. Such is the way Kore-eda handles his stories as if they were gentle earthquakes that throw slight shadows into the family make-up but never truly cause scenarios like say, something Lillian Hellman might have done.

The Truth plays out its drama in a lesser but no less sensitive key. You won’t walk out savaged and destroyed by devastation as you did in Shoplifters, but there are enough character reveals that don’t pigeonhole Deneuve and Binoche — the two most salient performers here (Hawke wisely takes a step aside and plays along, happy to be in the picture) — as simply a shallow mother and cynical, self-effacing daughter. Overall, very enjoyable and pleasing without being too memorable. [B]

In French and English, subtitled. Available on most platforms.

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