The Truth, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film outside Japan, finds the director at once retaining his style and adapting it to the tropes of French cinema. At its center is an aging screen icon, Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), who attempts to seize relevance one last time with the publication of a memoir timed with a new role that would put her with a rising starlet. The former brings the actress’s estranged daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), out of her life in the States to pore over the book for lies and omissions. The familial drama, with its metacinematic properties of casting an icon to play an icon, is pure French drama, but Kore-eda approaches the material with a slight, anticlimactic quality.

Kore-eda has never been a miserablist, but the light humor on display here further feels indebted to the wry, casual humor of French screenwriting. The film opens with Fabienne suffering through an interview in which the reporter visibly has to keep staring at his notepad to remember the perfunctory, unresearched questions he could have written down to interview anyone, questions which Fabienne pithily answers with all the effort they deserve. Lumir’s husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), is an American actor who speaks just enough French to ask for a glass of water and is thus left to helplessly watch as his wife and mother-in-law snipe at each other in a language he does not understand but whose passive-aggressive intonation he could not possibly miss. Elsewhere, he seems to understand Fabienne just enough to know when she’s insulting his work as “imitation” over true star-power personality, barbs to which he can only nod morosely.

As Lumir and Fabienne wage their mild war over unspoken grievances, the film also shows the actress’ work on her new movie, a high-concept sci-fi drama about a mother forced to abandon her child that contains obvious parallels to Fabienne’s own neglectful parenthood. Those connections never reveal that much about Fabienne’s inner thoughts, but more interesting is the contrast between the aging legend and the rising star, Manon (Manon Clavel). Fabienne, who came of age in the era of the star as unknowable, larger-than-life figure, is pure diva, talking down to the crew and expecting her every need to be met. Manon, meanwhile, exists in the era of stars having to be approachable, just as discussed by gossip rags but now forged by the two-way communication of social media. Manon is observant as an artist, making suggestions to her colleagues that add gravity and continuity to the smallest gestures, and as a human being, often listening to the other actors air their hang-ups and preoccupations and acting as an unofficial therapist. Even Fabienne, initially all but disgusted at how open the young woman is, comes to be mildly enchanted with her.

Amid these interesting diversions, the film injects more and more information to explain Lumir’s issues with her mother. We see the complexity of their relationship in how quickly the daughter falls into the habit of bringing her mother coffee and snacks on-set even as Lumir grows ever more frustrated with her mother’s circumspect nature regarding the true drama of her life. (As Fabienne tells Lumir when the latter complains of the fibs and modifications of her memoir, “I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth.”) We also get glimpses into Lumir’s own skeletons, as well as the mitigating factors that prevent the film from ever spiraling into tragedy or catharsis.

Kore-eda’s films are often about the gentle yet inevitable confrontation of a family with its secrets, and the elegant, wistful tone of his work often obscures the tragedies and hurt that he approaches not with melodramatic ruptures but silent acceptance. That’s true here, where entire arcs are played out in the muted resentment in Lumir’s voice or the twinkle of begrudging professional respect Fabienne flashes to Manon. The film’s insights into both stardom and absentee motherhood are hardly profound, but they feel honest, as warm and ultimately comforting as Éric Gautier’s overlit cinematography.

Summary
Kore-eda’s films are often about the gentle yet inevitable confrontation of a family with its secrets, and the elegant, wistful tone of his work often obscures the tragedies and hurt that he approaches not with melodramatic ruptures but silent acceptance.
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