A new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda is always a good reason to look up and take note. Ever since I first saw one of his films, the witty, inventive After Life (1998), the gentle giant of Japanese cinema has not disappointed me. Not all of his films are equally strong, but especially after his Cannes-winning Shoplifters (2017), I was sure I’d want to be there to see his latest at the cinema.
However, I would not have expected the new Kore-eda to be a thoroughly French éclair of a film starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche.
It is an odd experience to watch The Truth (original title: La Vérité), in particular as a fan of Kore-eda’s films. The director has a signature style, but it is quiet and subtle, almost self-effacing. He is an observer of people, especially (often surrogate) families and familial relationships. He has a keen eye for male characters who fall short of expectations, their own and those of others. The characters that people his films are disarmingly ordinary, though they often end up in extraordinary circumstances. (Thanks to my ever-vigilant wife and co-filmgoer for making that astute observation!) Questions of social class often play into the plots, combined with the things society expects from people in those classes.
All of this goes out the window in La Vérité, which tells of a dysfunctional mother-and-daughter relationship. Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is an aging star of French cinema, perhaps not entirely unlike the actress playing her. Her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter with a chip on her shoulder, comes to visit with her husband, the middling actor Hank (an endearingly sad-sack Ethan Hawke) and Fabienne’s granddaughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), on the occasion of the publication of Fabienne’s memoir. The fraught relationship between the haughty film star mother and her resentful daughter isn’t exactly improved when Lumir reads the book and finds her childhood and key figures from her mother’s life misrepresented to the point of being made entirely fictional, as Fabienne very much seems to pattern her life on a variation of Liberty Valance‘s famous dictum: when fiction becomes fact, play the fiction.
La Vérité itself plays with truth and fiction, memory and fact, and its various characters are often playing one role or another. There are scenes depicting Fabienne’s latest film shoot; she plays the old version of the daughter in a sci-fi fable about an absent mother who remains young while her abandoned child goes through an entire lifetime without her parent. Other scenes have Charlotte have a sentimental scene with her grandmother only to reveal that Lumir had written Charlotte’s lines for her, or Fabienne literally going off-script as she tries to apologise to her frustrated personal assistant (Alain Libolt) for a substantial snub. But even when the characters are supposedly themselves, they assume roles, versions of themselves, and relate to others (or fail to) through those roles. La Vérité rarely leaves any of its truths uncomplicated or unambivalent, which saves the film from what could have become overly sentimental or twee.
There is wit and subtlety to the film – but at the same time it does feel like a performance, and Kore-eda himself seems to have taken on a role he’s not yet had. See, La Vérité works quite well, especially in its two central performances, but it also feels like a film that could have been done by a number of French directors in between two more substantial projects. It is light and charming, though not without its sharper edges, but I found it almost impossible to detect Kore-eda in its archness. It is ironic: I was expecting something that might feel like an uneasy fit between the Japanese director and his ultra-French material – but instead I found that Kore-eda embodies a seasoned French director-screenwriter to a T. If the director has a self-effacing side to him, in La Vérité he has practically erased any trace that is recognisably Kore-eda. Admittedly, there is again a preoccupation with family, but this is a family very unlike those the director usually focuses on. Perhaps the big personality of Fabienne doesn’t leave much space for the director’s familiar gentleness of touch, but I don’t think it’s just that: the world and feel of La Vérité would be very different from that of his other films even if the setting was Japanese.
While you shouldn’t criticise a film for what it isn’t rather than appraise it for what it is, I’m finding it more or less impossible to follow this rule with La Vérité. As a small, charming French film with a surprisingly A-list cast, I found have found it witty and endearing. As a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, I’m finding it oddly generic, though of a genre that the director hasn’t attempted to date. It’s almost as if the film is the result of a dare, or possibly a self-imposed stylistic exercise. Perhaps Kore-eda will next try his hand at an ultra-British Agatha Christie adaptation or they’ll bring him in to do a new Marvel movie. Based on this film, he’ll do a good job of those too – but me? I’m hoping that the next film by Kore-eda will be… well… a Kore-eda film.