Movie Review: The Truth (2019)

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We are creatures of habit. From relitigating past wrongs to repeating the same mistakes, we fall back on old patterns like grooves on a record, destined to play the song we know so well until we take it upon ourselves to move the needle, flip the damn thing over, and start again. And nobody makes us spin around and around quite like family, whether it's in the joy of playing an old hit or the anguish of trying to avoid the inevitable scratches and hisses in the vinyl that we know are coming but can't escape.

Raised in the shadows of the limelight surrounding her famous French movie star mother Fabienne Dangeville – played with icy precision by Catherine Deneuve – whose demands always come first, it's no wonder that Lumir (Juliette Binoche) traded Paris for New York and married the most American man she could find (a TV star played by Ethan Hawke).

Having become a screenwriter, undoubtedly to give herself a greater sense of control by making the characters she invents say precisely what it is that she wants for a change, at the start of Hirokazu Kore-eda's “The Truth,” Lumir finds herself challenged once again by her mother, this time on a personal as well as professional front.

Returning to France with her husband Hank (Hawke) and their imaginative daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) in tow to celebrate the publication of Fabienne's memoirs, as Lumir begins reading the words that her mother had promised and failed to run by her first and finds it more fiction than fact, that sense of literary and familial control begins to vanish fast. Soon she confronts Fabienne about not only the glaring inconsistencies she has in her memory to her mother's sunshiny version of events but also her decision to completely ignore her relationship with and betrayal of a late contemporary of hers.

A woman whom Lumir idolized and looked to like the mother she always wished she'd had, as the film continues, we begin to see just how much their view of the past differs. Though it begins as a polite but firm objection, their standoff culminates in one particularly tense argument at dinner that finds Lumir snapping at her well-meaning husband to stay out of it since – to misquote Tom Hagen in “The Godfather Part II” – it's between mother and daughter, Hank.

Using an embedded narrative to add another layer to their relationship that lets them relive the past in the present, writer-director Kore-eda plants a film within his film. In “The Truth,” Fabienne stars in a science fiction movie called “Memories of My Mother” along with a younger up-and-coming actress who looks like and reminds Lumir of the late star, and as the mother-daughter drama shoots, they're forced to see each other's perspective a little clearer.

An ambitious if not wholly successful experiment, which finds the Japanese master filmmaker of “Shoplifters” and my own personal favorite “Like Father Like Son,” making a movie in both French and English, even though he only speaks Japanese, “The Truth” is a well-intentioned yet underwhelmingly slight endeavor. The passion project of Juliette Binoche who'd journeyed to Japan in 2011 to see her friend and suggest that they do something together in the future, the film, which is based upon a play he'd started to work on in 2003, illustrates the universality of the family dynamics that flood his oeuvre.

Laced with a touch of magical realism in Charlotte's relationship with her grandmother who she believes lives in a castle and might be a witch – that in itself ties into a fairy tale her mother used to love as a girl that she's reading her at bedtime – Kore-eda fills his movie with symbolism and metaphor both overt and subtle. From setting the movie in the fall as the events take place in the autumn of Fabienne's life to referencing the fact that behind her estate is a prison multiple times early on in the movie, it's clear that the imaginative Kore-eda has no shortage of ideas. Unfortunately, as clever as the film is, it's hard to empathize with the characters, as “The Truth” seems more focused on the meaning of and behind everything we see on the screen rather than on who they are as people.

Less gripping than other experimental Binoche led works from the last decade including Abbas Kiarostami's “Certified Copy” and Olivier Assayas' “Clouds of Sils Maria” that toy with narratives, nesting stories, and allusions, while the performers are tremendous and Kore-eda's thesis on family rings true, its success is more academic than involving.

Admittedly, it's worth the investment for cinephiles, if only for devotees of Kore-eda and our leading ladies, who have somehow never starred in a movie together before. Yet while the frustrated Lumir is the easiest character to understand, it's hard to watch scenes centering on the untimely death of a young actress without imagining how emotional they would've been for Deneuve who lost her own sister – actress Françoise Dorléac – at such a young age.

Relegating Hawke's intriguing if underwritten Hank to the sidelines, while Kore-eda's work is enticing in any language, sadly, it doesn't take long for “The Truth” to get stuck in the same scratchy groove – spinning around and around – in desperate need for the record to be flipped.

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