Over the last decade, Asian cinema has begun to bleed, more than ever, into the consciousness of mainstream Western audiences, and for good reason. Hirokazu Kore-eda's Palme d'Or-winning 'Shoplifters' has been one of such films to receive widespread and much-deserved acclaim. Its delicate and deferential exploration of the family unit also managed to dissect poverty in Japan in a way that left more people than ever excited to see what Kore-eda would do next. With his follow-up, 'The Truth', Kore-eda appears to be setting his sights high; not only is it his first non-Japanese film, but he has been developing the story since 2003 and bagged a stellar lead cast of Catherine Deneuve ('Belle de Jour'), Juliette Binoche ('High Life') and Ethan Hawke ('First Reformed'). Everything was in place for 'The Truth' to be another slam dunk for Kore-eda.
If one was to describe 'Shoplifters' as a beautifully-crafted painting, then 'The Truth' would be the stick figure doodles of a bored highschool student.
To Kore-eda's credit, 'The Truth' actually starts off quite strongly; we are first introduced to Fabienne (Deneuve), a French film icon whose long-spanning career mirrors Deneuve's, giving an interview about her newly-released memoirs and upcoming film. It would be easy to phone this type of scene in by having the interviewer spew exposition under the guise of contextualising his questions, but Fabienne hijacks the interview, explaining with boredom that she has already answered these questions for other publications. It's a fantastic introduction to a character so accustomed to having the world at her feet, and she is used to spinning things her way. This spinning of the past and Fabienne's own truth in her memoirs bring her daughter Lumir (Binoche), her husband Hank (Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) from New York to Paris. It seems that Lumir holds a radically different recollection of her mother's life and career, even annotating a copy of her mother's book with omissions and exaggerations she has made, in particular about their relationship.
While it's obvious from the outset that this is Fabienne's story (Deneuve gives the best performance by default here, simply because she has the most to work with), it's fascinating that 'The Truth' never feels entirely sympathetic to her yet spends most of its run time revolving around her life. It could be argued that the Fabienne's upcoming sci-fi film (which looks god-awful, mind you) is an exploration of her career; Fabienne plays the elderly daughter of a woman who never grows old, fleeing the set when made to wear a grey wig for a scene. It's obvious that Fabienne's disruptive behaviour on set is a silent protest against an industry she silently fears is ready to toss her out in her old age, but it's just so on-the-nose that I didn't even bat an eyelid when she was constantly cutting takes, wanting her scenes to be perfect. This is a woman so used to playing make-believe that she's adopted that mindset for her own real life. We've seen this before.
It's also fascinating just how boring the entire film is. 'The Truth' feels ready to drop some explosive secrets from Fabienne and Lumir's tumultuous relationship, but it never amounts to anything beyond Fabienne's own anxieties as an actress and how she screwed over her now-deceased rival. It's the equivalent of being promised a three-course meal and receiving a flavourless protein bar instead. Nothing exciting is occurring from a visual standpoint, and the sparse score gives the affair a much lighter spin than is appropriate. The editing also feels half-baked, with scenes either running one line of dialogue too long or being cut off as they could go somewhere interesting. Tonally, 'The Truth' wants to have its cake and eat it too - to be a lighthearted dramedy that explores the intricate relationships a woman can have to her blood and to her work, but it doesn't have the gravitas to strike an effective balance. It's not like it has not been done before; in fact, Olivier Assayas' 'Clouds of Sils Maria', also starring Binoche, traverses incredibly similar thematic ground with much more ease. Blame it on a weak script or blame it on moving from Japanese to French, but there's a good chance some moments lose their effectiveness when they're lost in translation.
Catherine Deneuve gives the best performance by default, which leaves Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke to be criminally underutilised.
As previously mentioned, Deneuve gives the best performance, which leaves Binoche and Hawke to be criminally underutilised. Both deserve scripts with more meat on the bone (Binoche has far more screen time than Hawke, but her character is so flimsy with her emotions and motivations that it just feels sad to waste a wonderful actress on the role).
'The Truth' has a number of interesting ideas that lend themselves favourably to this film's rewatchability, but it's such a bland affair that I cannot understand why one would want to watch it again. I felt as if I was forgetting it as I watched it.