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SGIFF 2019: The Truth (La vérité) dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda (Review)

Palme d’Or winner Kore-eda’s non-Japanese debut is a subtly moving portrait of complex familial relationships while celebrating the film industry and legacies left behind. 

While The Truth marks the first non-Japanese film Hirokazu Kore-eda had directed, it remains a project that has his name stamped all over it. Known for his mastery over subtle, understated family dramas, The Truth follows prima donna actress Fabienne (French film icon Catherine Deneuve) as she releases a memoir of her life. To celebrate the release, her daughter Lumir (the also iconic Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter in New York, flies back home to Paris to visit her, with her actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) in tow. When Lumir finally reads the memoir however, she notices plenty of missing details, and a different recollection of events from the way she remembers it.

While this could well develop into overt melodrama revolving entirely around the memoir’s contents, in the hands of Kore-eda, what results instead is a far quieter film, simmering rather than explosive. The memoir’s publication conveniently leaves out longtime caretaker Luc (Alain Libolt), who leaves Fabienne’s service. Lumir ends up postponing her return to New York to care for Fabienne, at least, till the end of her shoot for a brand new film. Over the course of the film and film within the film, mother and daughter work out their differences, tenuous at first, but slowly coming to realise how much they do understand each other, their relationship mending slowly but surely.

From the moment she is introduced, Catherine Deneuve proves herself more than worthy of her screen icon status, playing the demanding Fabienne with gusto (perhaps an exaggerated version of her real life persona). She complains her tea is lukewarm (and later, scalding), lectures drivers for not anticipating strikes, and conveniently forgets which actors and actresses are dead or alive (even those whose funerals she’s attended). But as much of a diva as she is, Fabienne never comes across as antagonistic, often showing a penchant for wry humour, an undeniable cool-ness to her as she takes a drag from a cigarette, and even moments of kindness and whimsy when dealing with her granddaughter. Fabienne is nothing short of a character, the old school Hollywood character so rarely seen in the industry today, holding back a wave of insecurities by putting on an incredibly strong front.

Throughout, the film Fabienne is working on (a sci-fi film overwrought with sentimentality) offers a medium for which to project her own insecurities on, as she worries about being upstaged by the young Manon (newcomer Manon Clavel), reminding her of a similar feud with another actress back in her younger days. The film becomes an opportunity for her to prove her relevance still, with her fears directly translating into her dismissal of the film and her agitation on set. Furthermore, with the film itself directly dealing with the relationship between a mother and a daughter (with Fabienne as the daughter and Manon as mother), it becomes a safe substitute for both Fabienne and Lumir (always on set to watch her mother) to access their own strained relationship.

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Compared to Deneuve, Binoche’s role is much smaller, but nonetheless, as daughter Lumir, acts as a powerful counterweight to Fabienne, accusing her memoir of being a bundle of fictions. Holding on to the belief that her mother hardly cared for her, Lumir is strained, blunt and often on the verge of yelling at Fabienne thanks to a mountain of unresolved issues within herself. When they come together onscreen, the interaction between both actresses is filled with tension, the relationship complicated by distance fuzzy memories, and vestiges of bad feelings. Ultimately, the ‘truth’ of what happened never really matters, only how each person perceives the years gone by. It is fascinating to watch both characters realise this during the film, and the gentle unhardening of their hearts as they set aside their differences and re-learn to love each other, be it through a scripted apology to Luc, or simply chatting in the green room. The moment they finally reconcile is positively euphoric to watch, as they share a genuine moment of understanding between each other and allow all the built-up tension to completely be let go of.

Both Deneuve and Binoche’s performances are supported by the medley of side characters accompanying them, each contributing moments of respite from the mother-daughter drama stewing. As Lumir’s non-French speaking husband, Ethan Hawke, as Hank, is immediately seen as an outsider, with his louder, American ways distinct from the controlled French. A ‘second rate’ actor struggling for a lead role, Hank is never integral to the plot, but provides moments of levity in-between that serves a direct contrast to better highlight the seriousness of Lumir and Fabienne. Kore-eda, well-known for his adroit handling of child actors in his films, also brings out the best in the young Clémentine Grenier, who steals scenes with her innocence and sincerity with which she plays Charlotte, shining especially bright in scenes where she is most playful.

In the beginning of the film, Fabienne is interviewed by a journalist, and tells him that she cannot think of any French actress she has ‘imparted her DNA’ to, nor taken from, as a true original. But as we near the end, it becomes increasingly obvious that Fabienne herself fears her own mortality, relevance, and the legacy she has left behind. When Charlotte expresses (staged) hopes of becoming an actress like her, there is a spark of joy in Fabienne’s eyes that she has inspired someone else, and coupled with the reconciliation with Lumir, assures audiences of a happier family in future. With its subject of an ageing film star, and the use of film and performance to mend her conflicts, The Truth is remarkable work from a seasoned director that elegantly condenses a medley of complicated issues into a single film, and makes for a perfect closer to the 30th Singapore International Film Festival.

The Truth played at Golden Village Grand on 1st December 2019 at 7pm to close the 2019 Singapore International Film Festival. 

SGIFF 2019 ran from 21st November to 1st December 2019. For more information, visit their website here

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