Truth. A simple word that can change lives. We seem to want it, we desperately crave it, and when we get it, we are terrified of it, destroyed by it. But what is the truth anyway? We all have one, it’s become subjective and subject to interpretations. We all act like our view of the world is the only possible one, only to be disappointed and deceived when the world doesn’t respond to that view.
Opening 2019’s Venice Film Festival, The Truth, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s follow-up to his Palm D’Or winner Shoplifters, is precisely that. It’s about how we deal with the outside world, with the ghosts within us, with our failures and our faltering memories.
It’s about Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), a declining actress who’s about to publish her memoir, called “The Truth”. It’s the confrontation that arises with her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), screenwriter married in New York to Hank (Ethan Hawke, whose robust screen time is inversely proportional to his eventual contribution to the film), that drives the film, when Lumir lands in Paris for the presentation of Fabienne’s book. What ensues is an erupting volcano of accusations of betrayal, lying, and ultimately pain.
What makes The Truth good, despite its many flaws, is that it is a richly layered film, so dense in its screenwriting that it can spring multiple interpretations of many of its scenes.
It’s a movie about family. We don’t get to choose our own family, so we either deal with it or walk away from it. Fabienne and Lumir did neither, resulting in an emotional limbo of grudge, regret and remorse. The unsaid dominates their relationship, until the inevitable happens. Truth is the Bellerophon to their Chimeras, the lies that have brought their mother-daughter relationship into a void. But despite their efforts, truth only comes off as a weapon, as a way to distance each other further away rather than getting closer.
It’s a movie about film. Art has always been mankind’s favorite way to handle conflicts and doubts. We draw a painting, we write a poem, we make a movie to tell something about us, to learn something about life. Art is the world of the untold, where we reveal our true selves, our traumas. Fabienne has her own share of secrets, and she carefully embeds them into her acting. She’s too preoccupied with her public persona to spill them into real life. She has been so absorbed by her profession that she has become a character herself. She’s a witch of the forest (and her living in isolation in her Parisian villa surrounded by trees is as close a meta-hint as you can get), she’s a loving grandmother, a grieving daughter, a resenting mother, a fatal friend. She speaks the truth through acting because she’s unable to do that otherwise. And we, as viewers, are witnesses to this process of self-reflection.
It’s a movie about the human soul. The privilege of success doesn’t spare Fabienne from her ghosts. She has to go through that same cruel, almost surgical process of realization. She has lived in denial for too long, she has found too much comfort in her removal not to be in for a rude awakening at the final stages of her career. Life comes back to haunt us whether we want it or not, so it’s only about how we turn that into an opportunity. Fabienne, an ultimately tragic figure, and Lumir do that in their own way, facing their own demons bravely and openly, helped by husbands, lovers, family, friends.
The Truth is an imperfect movie that nonetheless proves Kore-eda’s prowess in describing the human experience. And while the script sometimes relies too much on its own tricks, resulting in occasional verbosity, it is dense and rich, made even more worthy by an outstanding lead cast. Catherine Deneuve is absolutely titanic in her portrayal of Fabienne, immediately becoming a potential Volpi Cup winner. She speaks through her eyes, voice, her body, she disappears into the role with incredible ease, making Fabienne a larger than life figure that will warm people’s hearts despite her unlikability. Juliette Binoche, whose distraught eyes display rage, hurt and despair all at once, is her perfect match in this female duo on the hard-fought search for truth. It is their story that pierces the screen, in a movie that will not strike a chord in everyone’s hearts but that will linger in mine.
This review is from the 76th Venice Film Festival. IFC Films will release The Truth in the US (no date as of yet).