Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has always undermined any superficial comparisons that critics have made between his films and those of Yasujirō Ozu, largely as they all boil down to both being Japanese filmmakers who have made social realist films. But to understand why The Truth (La vérité), Kore-eda’s first film in a language other than Japanese, is a departure beyond the obvious nature of the language it is presented in, you need look no further than the director who he always cites as his biggest influence: Ken Loach.
For more than 50 years, Loach has never deviated from making impassioned dramas about societal injustices involving working class. Kore-eda never flirts with political rhetoric in the same way, at least not overtly, but he maintains a similar sense of empathy for his characters, no matter whether they are a group of young children left to illegally squat in an apartment (2004’s Nobody Knows), a sex doll who gains a human consciousness (2009’s Air Doll) or — most reminiscent of Loach — a nuclear family who rely on shoplifting in order to survive (2018’s Shoplifters). Of course, Kore-eda doesn’t exclusively make films about working class characters, but his innate humanity often leads him towards protagonists who are struggling to get by, giving them a voice rarely afforded to them in contemporary cinema, Japanese or otherwise.
Which is why there’s something inherently baffling in Kore-eda’s decision to follow up his most acclaimed film to date, about the struggles of those below the poverty line who are rendered invisible by society, with a film about the complicated personal life of a famous actress and her family. It isn’t the language barrier that represents a departure from the director’s comfort zone so much as the characters he’s decided to document — figures who would be more at home in an Olivier Assayas film slyly commenting on the insular nature of the French film industry, not as the central emotional focus of a drama Kore-eda surely intended to be the Gallic Still Walking. While The Truth isn’t a failure, it’s likely to remain the only film the director will make that can be purely enjoyed in terms of its surface level pleasures.
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Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne, a legendary French actress on the eve of publishing her long awaited memoir. Her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) have returned from Paris from their jobs in the American film industry to spend time together, but things quickly turn sour, as an already prickly mother-daughter relationship is further complicated by Lumir trying to question the lies and half-truths contained within her mother’s autobiography. Meanwhile, Fabienne grows increasingly indifferent to her day job, and proves to be a problematic presence on the set of a science fiction film she has a supporting role in.
The earlier Assayas comparison wasn’t flippant, as there are several moments when The Truth feels like a grounded version of Clouds of Sils Maria. Kore-eda clearly delineates between script and reality instead of playing around with it, but still finds small moments where the tensions on the pages of the screenplays Fabienne reads mirror those of her own family relationships. This isn’t exactly subtle; the science fiction film Fabienne is working on is about a mother-daughter relationship that takes place at a distance, and it’s clear from the amount of time spent on set that Kore-eda bended over backwards to ensure the parallels aren’t lost on a single audience member.
The other thing that’s particularly uncharacteristic of Kore-eda’s work is how The Truth operates as something of a star vehicle for Denueve, playing off her legendary status in French cinema and her increasingly controversial public persona. The director may have a profound love of social realism at its most miserabilist, but a fondness for French cinema from the New Wave period and beyond — which has previously gone unremarked upon in his work — clearly shines through. Fabienne is even introduced midway through an awkward interview, where the journalist struggles to maintain professionalism as he praises several of her prior roles — a moment of actor worship that could easily be read as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the director’s similar admiration for his star.
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But this love for Deneuve doesn’t mask just how out of sync the director’s intimate register is with an inherently melodramatic drama about the conflict between celebrity myth making and familial honesty. Kore-eda is usually skilled at taking high concepts (2013’s Cannes Jury Prize winner Like Father, Like Son) and finding an emotional honesty within. But when the stakes don’t have profound consequences on the lives of his characters in their own small ways, this approach can come off as too subdued to properly register, which is largely why The Truth is best viewed as a watered down (but often quite enjoyable) riff on many of Assayas’ recurrent thematic obsessions.
The Truth is one of Kore-eda’s most forgettable works; a family drama in the same vein as his earlier films, but told from a more removed perspective than audiences may be used to. Unlike many other filmmakers who transition between languages for the first time, Kore-eda’s style of filmmaking hasn’t got lost in translation, but it’s an awkward fit for such an inherently melodramatic premise.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.