Two women are playing a tender scene. The brunette, who can’t be 30 yet, strokes the blonde’s hair. The blonde is in her seventies, but her lips tremble as if she’s a child trying not to cry, and she calls the younger one “maman.” “Please don’t go away without me,” she says. Behind the women, you can see a blurry reflection of the camera crew filming them, and the blonde actress’s daughter standing there watching.
This scene comes an hour into The Truth, so you’re already well aware how many different layers of feeling are at play. There’s the film-within-a-film, whose science-fiction conceit is that a mother frozen in youth returns every seven years to visit her aging child. There’s the uneasy dynamic between the two performers, fractious grande dame Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and Manon (Manon Clavel), the rising ingenue who reminds her of a long-dead rival. Then there’s Fabienne’s neglected grown-up daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter. She’s back in Paris for the publication of Fabienne’s memoir, so full of self-serving elisions and elaborations that it’s essentially fiction.
Every character here can be grasped in their entirety on sight—including Lumir’s American husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), an amiable actor, trying to stay out of rehab—leaving plenty of room for the audience to contemplate larger questions. How much of our lives and relationships depends on some kind of performance? Is it a greater act of love to tell the truth or to conceal it? How can we know what’s true, anyway? And: Could this whole setup be any more ostentatiously French?
If you hadn’t seen the title sequence, you might not suspect that this pleasurably predictable family drama of creative bourgeoises was written and directed by the Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose last film, Shoplifters, won the Palme d’Or in 2018 and was nominated for an Academy Award. That film, a culmination of his work to date, showed impoverished people from three generations packed into a tumbledown dwelling on the outskirts of a Japanese city: a grandmother using her wits to hold onto their space and her pension; the younger ones variously jostling for scarce manual labor shifts, stripping at a club, or grifting to make up the constant shortfall. In Kore-eda’s work, whatever the genre—The Third Murder was a court procedural, After Life a speculative fiction in which the dead must pick a single memory to dwell in—family structures have been a constant theme, and the films that hint at a larger social analysis have earned him most attention abroad.
This new film, his first outside Japan, is so great a departure from the terrain of Shoplifters that it seems to dramatize a tension between the socially conscious filmmaking that can get you anointed a star in the West, and the opportunities such international success brings with it. Whereas Shoplifters follows characters, Kore-eda has said, whom society treats as “invisible,” The Truth gathers some of the most visible people in show business. Putting Deneuve and Binoche together in a movie for the first time feels like cinema bingo, and throwing in Hawke—as a dude not dissimilar from the one he played opposite Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy—only heightens the sense of some meta game being played. It’s 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. This is a film about cinema—grit of any kind is conspicuous by its absence.
The Truth’s lower narrative stakes may make it feel slighter than Kore-eda’s most acclaimed works. Shoplifters focused on city dwellers forming a makeshift family, barely getting by in an inhospitable environment that pits them against their neighbors. In the first few minutes of the movie, a man and boy run through their regular routine of theft in a supermarket, then pick up a distressed little girl they find on their way home. When the man and his lover attempt to bring the child back to her family the next day, they see that her parents will only add to her already copious bruises and burns. They take her in themselves, but now there’s an extra mouth to feed, and they can add kidnapping to their potential rap sheet. At the start of Nobody Knows, a baby-voiced single mother moves into a tiny apartment, sneaking the younger two of her four children upstairs inside suitcases to get them past the landlord. She comes home from work late and sloshed and, soon after, runs off altogether, leaving her 12-year-old to fend for himself and his siblings.
Yet plenty of Kore-eda’s films examine quieter, less chaotic situations. In all of them, you get to know people by observing how they handle objects, the small skills they pass on to one another, the practical fixes they work out when they find themselves in any kind of a jam. Nobody Knows is brilliant not because of the inherent pathos of the abandoned children but for the nitty-gritty logistics of how they survive. Likewise, the shoplifting scenes in Shoplifters do a lot of work: You see the boy’s annoyance when he must tolerate his new little “sister” coming along on their grocery expeditions; later, when he and the girl go alone, her youthful incompetence at stealing draws the attention of the clerk, who lets the boy off, saying: “Don’t make her do that.” In that moment, the boy starts to have doubts. What had been his special ritual with a father figure is sullied. Perhaps he’s been exploited all along.
The new film returns to some of Kore-eda’s favorite themes of responsibility, legacy, and the fluidity of roles between parents and children. The plot turns on the affectionately portrayed egotism of Deneuve’s character. At dinner, she goads her weakling son-in-law into breaking his sobriety, and shrugs off her long history of unkindnesses and betrayals as an artist’s prerogative. She asks Lumir to script an apology to win back the assistant she has alienated, explaining that since she’s never apologized to a man before, she wouldn’t know how to begin. “You cheated on them all,” Lumir exclaims, with a look of grudging admiration, “but you never apologized a single time?” When Fabienne, uncharacteristically vulnerable, is letting Lumir glimpse her regrets about the past and their relationship, she pulls up short and castigates herself. She should have thought to pour all these emotions into filming earlier in the day: What a waste of good material!
Kore-eda is sensitive to the scenes people perform for one another, and thoughtful about how rare and difficult it is for anyone to change. The film-within-a-film provides a distorted reflection, both comic and poignant, of the struggles going on outside it: the attempt to mature past one’s parents, or to acknowledge that maturing isn’t as easy as it looks. At one point, when Fabienne’s husband suggests she could be more gracious to those around her, she snaps at him for his self-righteousness. “Your biggest flaw as a man is to dump this stuff onto the main person concerned,” she says. “Insensitive good intentions are the most hurtful. My vicious tongue is harmless in comparison.” It’s partly an excuse, but it also shows another facet of Deneuve’s character. How many mothers, after all, are willing to play the wicked witch, to take whatever blame their adult children need to pile on them, and not insist on being forgiven or understood?
Working with a limited palette, Kore-eda finds the room for such subtleties. As in his other films, characters often can’t tell why their lives are taking a certain course, or why they behave as they do. Their affections are a confusing and painful blend of proximity and dependence, generosity and exploitation, performance and spontaneous feeling. Parental relationships, whether biological or not, always intrigue Kore-eda, for the way they present some chance for transformation—a chance easily missed or misused.
The Truth doesn’t achieve the mixture of intimacy and detachment that characterizes Kore-eda’s best work. Yet it confirms him as a restless, catholic filmmaker, eager to mine images and forms for feeling, rather than to transmit a predetermined idea. Kore-eda has written before that he has no desire to make films with an ideological message, which in his view “would be nothing more than propaganda.” His work is political more in the sense that Jane Austen’s is: Shoplifters didn’t set out to lecture anyone for averting their eyes from others’ hardships; it put a frame around some characters and allowed us to look. Kore-eda’s slow, patient way of looking, forged in his early years of making documentaries, always begins from the ground up, the smallest social unit, the granular detail. What’s important is whispered or unsaid, the big showdown you expect doesn’t always arrive, and even the most dramatic setups are only the excuse, the opportunity, to watch what happens between people forced to share a habitat.