Hirokazu Kore-eda is without a doubt the leading name of contemporary Japanese cinema and one of the finest filmmakers on the global level. Last year’s triumph in Cannes with “Shoplifters” could be seen as the crown of his auteur career so far, so he decided to take a leap forward, into the unknown with his first film made outside of Japan and Japanese context. “The Truth”, realized through French-Japanese co-production was selected to open this year’s edition of Venice.
Both of the decisions, the filmmaker’s one to make a new film (in a foreign country and in the language he does not speak, for that matter) in a quick succession, and the festival’s one to give it such an honourable spot in the programme feel a bit rushed. “The Truth” is still a debut of sorts, and it shows, it is far more French than Japanese in the terms of the story, cast and crew, so the director had to face some substantial contextual trouble; it is far from the standards Kore-eda set himself with brilliant works such as “Like Father Like Son” and “Shoplifters“. Let us just say that the transition was not so smooth.
Like it is the case with the most of Kore-eda’s films, the principal topic here is familial dysfunction, but, unlike his grounded, down-to-Earth Japanese films, the family here is quite bourgeois and devoid of the proper, real-world problems. It is led by the matriarch Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), a diva-type of actress whose career is slowly coming to an end due to her age. Her newest project is the memoir book she is about to publish and promote, while at the same time she is about to co-star in a ridiculous science fiction melodrama movie with a young and aspiring actress who might just take the “best actress” throne Fabienne sees belonging to herself only.
That is the reason for the visit from her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) whose task is both to read and amend the memoir and to support her mother in preparations for her part, her American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) who battles an alcohol addiction, and their daughter Charlotte. A lot of old animosities and family secrets are about to come to light over the course of several days or maybe a couple of weeks. And the ones regarding the late person named Sarah and her role as Fabienne’s “frenemy” rival and Lumir’s maternal figure might be the most dangerous ones.
Unlike Kore-eda’s Japanese films, originality is not exactly the name of the game here, since this plot summary looks pretty much like any standard-issue French bourgeois family drama. Sure, family secrets and dealing with them kinda runs through all of his opus, but the setting, the approach and everything else feels like something from another world. That world is obviously a bit strange to Kore-eda, so he insists on things he has probably seen in a number of French films, like gatherings, house visits and shared meals, attempts at humour that are more charming than actually funny (except when he goes meta at several moments) and a dash of melodrama.
The dialogue feels clunky most of the time and translated (which actually is, Léa Le Dimna gets the screenwriting credit for adaptation) all the time. Kore-eda’s approach to directing is a bit too discreet, so it blurs his actual intentions with this film. His own editing, which is neither dynamic nor meditative in pace does not help either. The film certainly has its moments of great fun, but most of them are revolving around the movie Fabienne is shooting, and we do not get enough of them. Visually, “The Truth” is more than satisfying, mostly due to cinematography by Eric Gautier who shoots the whole thing in natural-appearing colours and from interesting angles.
One could argue “The Truth” is, at first place, the actors’ film. It is not the case, and the actors here are not the ones to take the blame. Simply put, the characters here are typical, more stereotypical than archetypical and, apart from Catherine Deneuve who can play parts like this one even while sleeping, most of the cast has nothing substantial to do. Certainly, it is fun to watch the veteran French actress having her diva show, but it is a shame that Juliette Binoche is relegated to the thankless role of the mousy daughter, while Ethan Hawke recycles his “an American in Paris” role from Richard Linklater / Julie Delpy films.
All things considered, “The Truth” plays out and feels like yet another French film, quite an average one. It seems like Hirokazu Kore-eda got lost in translation with it and there is no deeper truth to it.