Hirokazu Kore-Eda has been writing and directing supremely humane, insightful dramas for 20 years, to greater and greater acclaim: last year’s Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar. Now, he’s made his first film outside of Japan, The Truth (or La Verité), which opens this year’s Venice Film Festival. Not much has been lost in translation. It’s certainly lighter and breezier than usual: more likely to make you laugh, but less likely to make you cry. In his Japanese work, the characters tend to be one wrong move away from destitution and/or death, whereas in his new laidback farce they don’t seem to risk anything worse than a hangover brought on by too much expensive brandy. But Kore-Eda’s understanding of the complexities of familial love and the disappointments of middle age is as wise as ever.
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There is nothing to alert you, either, that The Truth wasn’t written and directed by someone who was born and bred in France. Having previously made nothing but Japanese films, Kore-Eda has gone on to make a film which is about as French as you can possibly get. Most of it is set in a spacious old house with a leafy garden in Paris; its subject is the resentments between bourgeois relatives; it doesn’t stint on the wine, cheese, crepes and accordions; and it stars two of French cinema’s grandest grande-dames, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.
Deneuve plays Fabienne, an actress who could easily be mistaken for Deneuve herself: a Cesar-winning veteran who wears a leopard-print coat and has a framed poster of a film called The Belle of Paris (ie almost Belle de Jour). The secret of her success, she believes, is that she prioritises art over life. Acting comes first; her dog comes second; her husbands, children and colleagues tie for last place. But in her newly published memoirs she presents herself as a devoted mother who cared about nothing more than her daughter, Lumir (Binoche), now a New York-based screenwriter. Lumir remembers her childhood very differently, so she brings her husband (Ethan Hawke) and daughter to Paris so that she can establish – yes – the truth.
Pinning down Fabienne isn’t easy: she always has someone else to talk to or someone else to think about (usually herself). Her partner, her personal assistant, her ex-husband and a pet tortoise come and go, and Fabienne herself is busy shooting a cameo in a science-fiction movie called ‘Memories of My Mother’ – an adaptation, incidentally, of a published story by Ken Liu. The premise of this film-within-a-film is that the mother (Anne Hathaway-ish newcomer Manon Clavel) is terminally ill and has to live in space, where she doesn’t age. She visits her daughter Amy once every seven years, so while the mother stays forever young, her daughter keeps ageing. At 38 Amy is played by Ludivine Sagnier’s actress character Anna, and at 73 she is played by Deneuve’s.
The Truth is always a wistful comic pleasure, and the central performances can’t be faulted
This plot, of course, is a twisted reflection of Fabienne and Lumir’s real relationship (though Lumir denies it), in which contact is rare and fleeting, and in which an ever-glamorous mother lives in a world of her own. As the shooting continues, the sci-fi movie allows Kore-Eda to comment on regrets, showbusiness, performance and the difference between being a good parent and pretending to be a good parent. They are, however, the kind of comments you might make during a dinner with friends. Instead of cutting to the heart of the matter, as he does so often, Kore-Eda is content to prod and poke at it, and the film’s mild mood and leisurely pacing, its preference for hugs and dances over arguments, meant that there were moments I wished I could just watch ‘Memories of My Mother’.
Still, The Truth is always a wistful comic pleasure, and the central performances can’t be faulted. Deneuve is glorious as the casually condescending Fabienne, someone so regal that she never notices how cruel her waspish put-downs are. Binoche’s repertoire of winces and grimaces is almost as funny, and Hawke is touching as a jobbing television actor who may be trying a little too hard to be a fun dad. Kore-Eda makes them all so sympathetic that it doesn’t matter whether the film is in French, Japanese, or any other language. Anyone who has ever been a parent or had a parent will be smiling in recognition.
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