The estranged mother-daughter movie is often explored in indie cinema (Recently: The exceptional “Miss Juneteenth.”) Rare is the masterwork, like Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata,” that depicts a mother and daughter who reconnect after years of built up tension and anxiety where they finally unleash their true emotions on each other during their reunion. Of course, then, when a French movie called “The Truth” is released that stars French iconic actresses Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, that is also about the reunion of an estranged mother and daughter, then you know exactly what Bergmanesque territory you might be getting into. But Oscar-nominated Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda fresh off his 2018 masterpiece “Shoplifters” drifts away from his native homeland to make a French drama and the results are treacly but equally fraught, he uses the same themes of family dynamics found in his earlier work, and applies them with the same affection and sentiment found before.
Many directors depart their native country to some extent, and almost all film directors strive to get out of their comfort zone and some have flat out failed, with distant and tragic results (Like “The Tourist”), but Koreeda’s is quite extensive with his vision in “The Truth.” It is rather fascinating why he chose to shoot a film in France, with a French crew, in which most of the dialogue is in French, a language Koreeda doesn’t speak. (There is also a substantial amount of English in the film as well.)
It’s easy to be skeptical when a director attempts that because of the fact the film can feel distant or even removed. Koreeda’s work has always been compared to the work of Yasujiro Ozu, another director that uses simplicity and grace for his characters while never losing sight on the complexity or human frailty–and Koreeda is still able to translate those same sensibilities into his work here.
Throughout history many filmmakers have failed in making their films translate in other nations; plenty of directors make movies in languages other than their own. But this hasn’t always been successful. Ingmar Bergman’s “The Serpent and The Egg,” and “The Touch,” which were both in English were some of the weakest of his career. Wong Kar-Wai received the worst reviews of his career with the overlooked and misunderstood 2008 masterpiece “My Blueberry Nights,” and “Snowpiecer” (2013) and “Okja” (2016), which were both also made in English and were Bong Joon Ho’s weakest films of his career.
While “The Truth” isn’t quite on the same level as “Shoplifters”, or as even successful as Koreeda’s previous films, his care and attention for character depth and storytelling still resonates. A film about an award-winning A-list French actress and the family she pushed aside in order to become a greater actress. Semi-adapted from a stage play Koreeda wrote in Japan years ago, the story works well in its Parisian setting in which French screen actress Fabianne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) who just published her autobiography titled “The Truth”, and if anything there is a meta quality to “The Truth” that almost feels semi-autobiographical to Denueve’s own life, in which the Fabienne character has much of the same career as Deneuve herself.
Fabienne’s daughter and her family arrive in Paris from New York, who are there to celebrate the release of her book. But her daughter, Lumir (Binoche), a screenwriter, holds some bitterness towards her mother. Fabienne at one point was going to share the book with her before the release date, but shattered that promise. Once Lumir reads the book she is very distraught and shocked at the omissions and deceptions that are on display in the book. For instance Fabienne claims she would walk Lumir home from school, when in fact it was Lumir’s father who did this instead. Fabienne even missed Lumir’s school plays where she played the cowardly lion from “The Wizard of Oz”.
Fabienne rationalizes that her book is more of a heightened and alternate reality that will push the perception and persona forward after she passes on. Fabienne, like any successful artist, is very self-centered who claims she feels most authentic when she is acting in a fictional reality. She still acts, and is currently cast in a sci-fi film that stars a rising young actress. If the plot sounds similar to Oliver Assaya’s 2015 “Clouds of Sils Maria” (My favorite film of 2015 that also co-stars Binoche) that’s because it plays on many of the same meta themes and familiar terrain of actors enduring and fearing irrelevance, the passage of time, and one making amends for their livelihoods through the healing power of art.
Fabienne doesn’t connect to the script, but it allows her to act with a rising actress that will make her feel relevant again. In the sci-fi film there are instant mirrors of the relationship she has with her daughter in the movie she is acting into to estrangement she endures with Fabienne. Allowing Koreeda to play on more meta themes of art imitating life.
Lumir’s American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), is more empathetic to Fabienne’s lifestyle, perhaps because he is an actor as well in which his mother-in-law dismisses his acting more as “imitation” as she doesn’t take him too seriously because he acts in TV and on online web shows. Koreeda also plays out the ideas of how anyone can be an actor these days with the ever growing accessibility of technology where anyone can now pick up a camera and shoot a movie. Perhaps Hank has his own agenda too by attempting to be on Fabienne’s good side that can pave the way for more acting opportunities.
Hank is mostly a TV actor who claims he is now finding some success, and while he and Lumir appear to have a healthy marriage on the outside, there are subtle observations that they have complications of their own. There is a subtle scene of him playing with his daughter and children at a birthday table, and neither Fabienne or Lumir aren’t too convinced because it appears to all be a show as he projects himself externally to impress his mother-in-law.
Koreeda fills his movies with human pathos and they always feel in good nature, in which Koreeda always delivers the film with rich simplicity and raw characters that are so well-written that you can always identify with their plights. Koreeda is indeed a modern Ozu. But it’s not all slight, there are heated exchanges and brutally honest exchanges, debates at dinner tables and confrontations that engage. Not everything triumphs in this film and some may seem routine, but everything in this drama is well earned and never mundane. The film hits with raw nerves, it might feel untidy in spots and a tad overstuffed, but its undeniably moving and involving.