Molly Haskell describes La Vérité (The Truth, Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2019) as “an anxious and lyrical family drama,” noting how it presents “the way in which families construct their mythologies, often at variance with whatever truths can be rescued from a past that has been pushed and pulled into forms that family members can live with.”1 The Franco-Japanese co-production is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film set outside Japan and not in his native language. Starring French film royalty Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, the film would go on to open the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Despite the atypical terrain, the film is quintessential Kore-eda: the soft blurring of truth and fiction, gentle music punctuates transitions, and landscape montages remind audiences what lies beyond human dramas. This essay explores how The Truth is in dialogue with Kore-eda’s oeuvre, as well as the cinematic apparatus more broadly.
Kore-eda uses parallel narratives as a plot device, as seen in Hana yori mo naho (Hana, 2006) where a play-within-a-play mirrors the main story. The Truth see’s Deneuve playing aging actress Fabienne Dangeville, whose fame mirrors Deneuve’s. The science fiction film-within-the-film, Souvenirs de ma mère (Memories of My Mother) is in production at Épinay Studios in Paris. Here, elegant young actress Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) plays the titular mother who goes to space to escape terminal illness on Earth. Manon returns from outer space every seven years to visit her daughter, Amy. The daughter grows up (and old) on earth while Manon’s voyage through time and space means she doesn’t age. Fabienne is playing the older version of Amy.
This kind of time-warp is not new in Kore-eda’s filmography. In Wandafuru raifu (After Life, 1998), for example, Takashi Mochizuki (Arata Iura) appears young but within the films’ diegesis is the same age as Ichirō Watanabe (Taketoshi Naitō) – a septuagenarian in the way-station between life and death. Haskell compares the “playfully Piradellian twist” of the science-fiction film in The Truth to movies themselves: “that ageless realm where our idols remain forever young.”2
Memories of My Mother is based on Ken Liu’s very short (three and a half page) story of the same name.3 Here, the caring and eternally 25-year-old mother travels through time and space to thwart her terminal illness. Liu describes her daughter Amy at various ages, including a resentful adolescent Amy. “She has no right to dip back into my life once every seven years, like some fairy godmother,” the teenaged Amy proclaims. One major difference between Liu’s fiction and Kore-eda’s film is that in the former, when Amy is 80 the mother announces that she won’t leave again. And so the story ends.
David Gaddie uses Liu’s short as the basis for his short film Beautiful Dreamer (2016). In stark contrast to Kore-eda’s minimalism, Gaddie adds snowy landscapes, flying drones, discos with strobe lights and lots more dialogue. Beautiful Dreamer’s final act sees the (now elderly) daughter and still-young mother time-travel together and crash back into the first memory the daughter recalls, which is her mother saying goodbye. Comparing Gaddie’s short with Kore-eda’s more austere version in The Truth reminds audiences that less is more. Kore-eda mirrors the mother’s restraint aesthetically, through mise-en-scène and costume. The older Amy of Gaddie’s film is mostly a figure of pathos, while Kore-eda retains our interest in her as an individual.
Mothers and Daughters
In Kore-eda’s oeuvre, we find supportive mothers in Hana and Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking, 2008), absent mothers in Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows, 2004) and Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015), a bitter grandmother in Still Walking, distraught mothers in Maboroshi no hikari (Maborosi, 1995) and abusive or deceptive mothers in Manbiki kazoku (Shoplifters, 2018) and Sandome no satsujin (The Third Murder, 2017).
“Don’t call me Mother,” Fabienne instructs her middle-aged daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) when they are on set together. Fabienne’s dilemma is that she would like her daughter to love her, yet also doesn’t want to put too much effort into making this happen. This dynamic can also be found in Our Little Sister, where the eldest daughter struggles to get along with her long-absent mother. Fabienne’s real interests lie elsewhere, in “stoking the star” (to use singer Joni Mitchell’s phrase). Even a sincere moment of reconciliation becomes, for Fabienne, an impetus for improving her craft. Where does the persona end and the real person begin? Or, do they coexist simultaneously? Inseparable? Towards the film’s conclusion, Lumir tries to reconcile with her disapproving mother. This mimics the son Ryota Yokoyama (Hiroshi Abe) in Still Walking pretending to get a cell phone call so his elderly father could catch up with him on their walk to the sea. Lumir attempts to brush her mother’s hair, and Fabienne almost lets her, before becoming critical and irritable.
The Actor’s Art
The Truth is indeed a film about stardom. Fabienne asserts that the qualities of a fine actor are “personality” and “presence”—qualities she possesses in spades. When the young director of Memories of My Mother asks her to reshoot a scene (in which Fabienne had obviously expended effort) so it can be shorter, she retorts, “Are we shooting a commercial?! …Poetry is necessary in cinema.” Despite linguistic differences between director and cast, their shared commitment to the poetic quality of cinema is what unites them.
The art of acting itself is a skillful mix of truth and pretending. Fabienne’s advice about acting is to emphasize that an actor must channel heartache into art, “Acting is not a job you do halfway.” She mocks internet actors and cheap stage tricks used by some in the production (although she tries a few herself). Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern reports that Deneuve, “doesn’t make Fabienne lovable, but gallant, vulnerable, very funny and intricately memorable…she pulls off the lovely conceit—the master joke—of an impossibly famous movie star playing a version of herself, and doing it with a delicate mix of fondness and self-irony. That constitutes truth-telling of a high order.”4
Frequent Kore-eda collaborator, veteran actress Kiki Kirin, was never a “diva” in the same sense as Deneuve. Yet, both are known for their straightforward (and at times caustic) manner of speaking. Fabienne doesn’t indulge in gestures of empathy, yet her onscreen son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) notes her sadness. In his memoir, filmmaker and sculptor Juan Luis Buñuel wrote that Deneuve liked to take chances with different kinds of scripts. “She told me once that you have to treat people with mépris (contempt) for them to respect you.”5
The credit sequence shows Fabienne adorned in her leopard-skin coat, walking her dog Toto by the prison wall near her house. She has to stop each time the little dog wants to sniff, pee or poop. But Deneuve doesn’t carry any plastic bags, nor does she bend down. No indeed.
The writings of Tawada Yōko in The Naked Eye provide insight into Deneuve’s status in the Japanese imagination. Chapters take their names from films that Deneuve has starred in, such as Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965), Tristana (Luis Buñuel, 1970), Indochine (Régis Wargnier, 1992), Le dernier métro (The Last Metro, François Truffaut, 1980) and Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000).6 In the chapter entitled Belle de Jour, Tawada writes evocatively:
“On my way back from the theater, I would retrace the series of images I’d seen in the movie. If I yanked the strip of film from the projector and used it to make my own road, I could walk down it image by image all the way home.”7
“On a Rainy Day like This”8
Kore-eda outlines the path that took him towards The Truth in his book Konna ame no hi ni (On a rainy day like this), published in Japanese in 2019. The foreword relates how the director had penned an unfinished screenplay under the same title (Konna ame no hi ni) which was supposed to be performed at the Parco Theatre in Shibuya in 2003. Unfortunately, that plan never came to fruition. The scenario was about an older actress near the end of her career. As she puts on her makeup in her dressing room, she wonders if anyone will come to see her play, “on a rainy day like this.” She’s aware that the “idol talent” is the real audience drawcard. They’re performing Cathedral, a 1983 story by Raymond Carver about same-sex friendship. The elderly actress has no friends and cannot understand the story’s nuance.
A mysterious letter offering detailed advice about her performance usually arrives a week after a show premieres, but this time, there’s no letter. The actress doesn’t know who sends the letters; this frustrates her. Maybe it’s from that director who helped her a long time ago? Or, that actor she had a relationship with many years ago? As she sits in her dressing room on the final day of the show, an elderly woman approaches her. She tells the actress that her husband, who used to work in the theatre’s cloakroom, helped her write the letters. He had passed away the day before the premiere, that’s why the letter never arrived. This is how the friendship between the two women begins. As they leave the theatre, rain turns to snow. The elderly actress thinks, “If there was only one more day left to perform the show, I could act better.” Kore-eda considered casting veteran performer Ayako Wakao as the older actress, with Kiki Kirin as the elderly wife of the cloakroom attendant. 15 years after writing that scenario, everything changed (title, setting, cast) and was reborn as The Truth.
Kore-eda first met Juliette Binoche in 2005 and shared the stage with her during the 2011 CoFesta (Japanese International Contents Festival) for a lengthy taidan (dialogue) about performing. She suggested they make a film together. “Definitely,” the director replied. Binoche proposed using a French novel set in Japan as source material, but Kore-eda didn’t gravitate towards this idea, preferring instead to make the film in France with a non-Japanese cast. He realized that, if he was going to film in France, he wanted to cast Deneuve and re-wrote the scenario with these actors in mind. Kore-eda didn’t try to make a French film; rather, he made a Kore-eda film carried over to France. His deep respect for French cinema and admiration for the actresses was a central tenet of the project. The Truth combines the universality of the family drama with the compelling question of what it means to act. In the Japanese book about the film, Kore-eda wrote that the first person he would have liked to share the film with was (the late) Kiki Kirin, his “filmmaking partner.” He imagined her asking, somewhat acerbically, how Deneuve’s performance had been.
The Truth plays out in Paris but it’s not a showcase of the city. In fact, we see very little of Paris in all of the city’s splendor. The film opens and closes with a garden—neither a large stroll garden nor a small backyard garden. Rather, it is the private garden of a French actress who has lost none of her iconic stature with age. As Fabienne, Deneuve controls her corner of the world just as she expends energy to control the star persona that surrounds her. It hurts this “ferocious and fearless” actress to accommodate the foibles of others. She prefers not to bend to their need for recognition, or for truth.9
It is not surprising that Kore-eda wanted to work with Deneuve (whose middle name is actually Fabienne). Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy, 1964) is one of his favorite films, alongside works by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Mikio Naruse, Ken Loach, Robert Bresson, Federico Fellini and Theodoros “Theo” Angelopoulos. Hou Hsiao-hsien offers cineastes a model of an Asian director who has filmed abroad (in Tokyo and in Japanese in Kōhī jikō (Café Lumière, 2003) and in Paris and in French for Le voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007)).
Kore-eda inserts subtle references to earlier periods in French film history in The Truth. We hear Françoise Rosay’s name in passing, a French opera singer. Audiences see Épinay Studios. “I remember it being bigger,” Lumir exclaims as they approach, highlighting the vicissitudes of memory that fascinate Kore-eda. To pass the time while riding in her limousine, Fabienne muses about the alliteration of many great actress’s names: Michèle Morgan, Simone Signoret, Greta Garbo, Anouk Aimée, Danielle Darrieux, and –with a disdainful sound—Brigitte Bardot. Bardot starred in a 1960 film, also entitled La Vérité (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1960).
The appearance of a black dress with white collar, like the one Deneuve sported in the “revelation” scene of Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967), reminds audiences that The Truth pays homage to Deneuve’s earlier roles as well. Surely, one would think of Indochine while watching the Vietnamese family dine in the restaurant while Fabienne enjoys a lonely meal with her dog Toto. Tristana (Luis Buñuel, 1970) comes to mind when Deneuve appears at the second-floor balcony window of her Parisian house (but this time she doesn’t need to bare her breasts).
Kaori Shoji notes that, “in The Truth and in Paris, Kore-eda seems to breathe easier, untethered by convention, with a lot less to rebel against or prove.”10 In an interview in Cineuropa, Kore-eda revealed that he decided to use stronger words during family conflicts in The Truth than he would have used in a Japanese context. “Usually the Japanese are not as straightforward. In our families, we use more silence—me included.”11 The Japanese director informed his actors that the film is a “comedy.”12
Director of photography Eric Gautier13 films Fabienne’s elegant house as a comfortable space full of textures, thick blankets and heavy curtains. The house looks like a castle, but a castle in the shadow of a prison (as the women state several times). Fabienne’s room is connected to a study full of photos, trophies and framed film posters from earlier in her career—a reminder that the past is very much present in this space. Lumir’s childhood room is up a winding staircase. reinforcing her sense of separation. Asserting her “not-a-baby” status, Lumir and Hank’s daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) carries her heavy suitcase up those winding stairs herself. Like little Yūichi (Gohki Kashiyama) and Tomoko (Naomi Watanabe) exploring the abandoned derelict boat in Maborosi, Kore-eda’s children often flirt with danger without succumbing to it. The stairs are narrow and steep; a fall backwards with that heavy load would have been dangerous.
We can contrast Fabienne’s house in The Truth with the grandmother’s ramshackle one in the preceding film Shoplifters. When the young woman Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) returns to the house after the arrests, we see only empty rooms, cleared of human presence. The same is true when Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) returns to her former one-room apartment in Maborosi. In both cases, the space is “haunted” by the presence of those who will never return. In contrast, Fabienne’s Parisian home is full of fragrances, heightened emotions, mementos; it’s hard to imagine it ever being empty.
Fabienne’s house is a magical place. The bilingual Charlotte understands her grandmère as a “beautiful witch” and her father as a great dad who also knows a little magic. Her relationship with her own mother (Juliette Binoche) seems unruffled, although the shadow of Lumir’s resentment of Fabienne is a storm ready to erupt at any time. Charlotte believes her grandmother really can turn a man into a turtle, like the great turtle Pierre in the garden. Indeed, the human Pierre arrives at the house suddenly—a whimsical, if needy, grey-haired man—and thus Charlotte is introduced to her grandfather.
More than any other Kore-eda film, there is a fairy-tale tone to The Truth (although his earlier film Kiseki (I Wish, 2011) also introduces us to the seriousness of magic for precocious children). Fabienne promises to turn Charlotte’s mean American friend into a multi-colored slug, as “a lizard would be too pretty.” Fabienne’s tea is either “too lukewarm” or “too hot,” showing the same audacity as Goldilocks towards the Three Bears. Denueve’s magical abilities bring to mind another film in which she appeared: Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin, Jacques Demy, 1970). This sense of magic is lighthearted, as Kore-eda “has a sense of humor and tenderness very much his own.”14 Binoche compares the Japanese director to a modern-day Anton Chekhov.15
The film reminds audiences that while not everything is a performance, not everything is the truth. Everyone lies a little.
“Am I washed up as an actress?” Fabienne asks her live-in cook/lover Jacques (Christian Crahay) and then implores him not to answer in case he might reveal the truth. Later, Fabienne asserts that she herself “can’t lie.” If that is so, what about the fabrications in her memoir? Fabienne insists on her right to construct her memoir as she wishes: to embellish, kill off, throw away. She omits mention of people who have devoted years to her care, like her assistant of 40 years Luc (Alain Libolt, who bears a striking resemblance to Sir John Gielgud). He storms off, after pointing out that Fabienne remembers nothing about his life. In fact, in her memoir she even “kills off” her former partner Pierre (who we see later is very much alive). The memoir Fabienne has written is called La Vérité, but she asserts that, “The naked truth isn’t interesting.” Kore-eda is asking us: Do we have the right to construct our own version of our lives?
Lies abound. Lumir and Hank agree that he was at a film shoot the last time Lumir visited her mother; it turns out that he was actually in rehab as a recovering alcoholic. Near the end of the film, Lumir writes lines for her own daughter to recite to her grandmother, to please the aging star. “I want to be an actress,” the little girl says, and we sense it contains a kernel of truth. Earlier, the granddaughter told an innocent lie (that she is an actress in Hollywood) to try to impress an arrogant French child actress. Luc notices this skillful, if childlike, lie and smiles.
Stretching the truth is also apparent in After Life when one of the newly deceased, Nobuko Amano (Kazuko Shirakawa) speaks of a memory of meeting a lover at the Teikoku (Imperial) Hotel. It turns out that this meeting never really happened. Paradoxically, this anticipation is what Nobuko chooses as her one memory to take with her into eternity.
We’re introduced to Fabienne’s vicious tongue right from the start, and also to the marginal status of Lumir’s family in Fabienne’s world. The family enters from a dark corner of the garden into the light of a spacious grassy area in front of the house. Despite the long period of separation, Fabienne doesn’t rush to greet them, and continues with an interview that obviously bores her.
We learn little by little that another fine actress, Sarah, was preparing for a coveted role that Fabienne eventually got (“because you slept with the director,” Lumir reminds her bitterly, adding “I’ll never forgive you.”). As in Still Walking, a dead person who will not remain dead hovers in the background. In Umi yori mo mada fukaku (After the Storm, 2016) and Soshite chichi ni naru (Like Father Like Son, 2013), there is a child who fails to live up to expectations and parents who fail at parenting. The Truth can be placed in the world of mother-and-daughter films like Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959), Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978), and Terms of Endearment (1983)–films where daughters and mothers cannot reach a point of forgiveness within their troubled relationships.
In a rare show of vulnerability, Fabienne admits her jealousy of Sarah who had “stolen her daughter” (or at least her daughter’s heart). The Truth (like Still Walking) is a film of subtle reconciliations. “The flow of incidents throughout is naturalistic,” writes critic Tony Rayns, “freed from hyped-up climaxes.”16
Kore-eda’s films travel through childhood, from the energetic group of elementary school children in his first documentary Mō hitotsu no kyōiku – Ina shogakkō haru gumi no kiroku (Lessons from a Calf, 1991), through the resourceful abandoned children in Nobody Knows, to the separated (but protected) brothers in I Wish, the switched children in Like Father Like Son, to the abused, compassionate child in Shoplifters. He has a special fondness for goofy dads, often played by Japanese actor Lily Franky, and in this case by Ethan Hawke.
In all of his films, Kore-eda expands our understanding of what might constitute a family. It might be a temporary one (as with the four survivors in Distance (2001)), or an unconventional one (four step brothers and sisters in Nobody Knows) or a constructed one (Shoplifters). Even seemingly “normal” families might have huge fissures (Still Walking, Like Father Like Son). In this light, the rather dysfunctional families in The Truth don’t seem so out-of-place after all.
“It was as if…you had already written a screenplay for your life when you were a child and only later accepted roles that fit into it. As if you had always been controlling the making of these films from behind the scenes with invisible threads.”17
At the end of The Truth, Lumir looks out at Hank and Charlotte playing in the garden (reminiscent of Maborosi’s conclusion). We catch a glimpse of a train passing by the left-hand corner of the screen (can there be a Kore-eda film without at least a glimpse of a train!). The family is reunited in the garden, as the camera starts to pull away. Catherine Deneuve has to have the last word. She gazes upwards and proclaims “I love Parisian winters,” looking for a moment like the 20-year-old Deneuve of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Calling Fabienne “frosty [but] not impermeable,” Anthony Lane writes of the ending: “…in the final moments, with the seasons changing and the leaves falling, she lifts her immaculate face to the winter light.”18
Real and invented memories divide and unite this family across generations, and life goes on.
- Molly Haskell, “The Truth,” Film Comment, 56:2 (March/April 2020), page 69 ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Ken Liu, “Memories of My Mother,” in The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. N.Y. Saga Press (2020), 249-252 ↩
- Joe Morgenstern, “‘The Truth’ Review: Fact, Fiction and Everything in Between” The Wall Street Journal, 2 July 2020 ↩
- Juan Luis Buñuel, Good Films, Cheap Wine, Few Friends: A Memoir (Shaker Heights: Shika Press, 2014) eds. Linda Ehrlich, 2014 p. 400. Juan Luis was the eldest son of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and Deneuve starred in La femme aux bottes rouges (Juan Luis Buñuel, 1974) ↩
- Yōko Tawada, The Naked Eye (Cambridge: New Directions, 2004) trans. Susan Bernofsky ↩
- Ibid, p. 137 ↩
- With thanks to Yuki Togawa and Hiroko Takada-Amick for suggestions on the translations in this section ↩
- A phrase used by Marjane Satrapi, the animator/director of the 2007 film Persepolis, in which Deneuve provided the voice of the Iranian mother. ↩
- Kaori Shoji, “The Truth about Kore-eda,” Japan Subculture Research Center, 14 October 2019. ↩
- Marta Bałaga, “Hirokazu Kore-eda—Director of The Truth,” Cineuropa, March 8 2019 ↩
- Nicolas Rapold, “Interview: Juliette Binoche,” Film Comment, March 12, 2020 ↩
- Winner of a César in 1999, Gautier is also known for his work on The Motorcycle Diaries, Ash is the Purest White, and several films by Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Summer Hours) ↩
- Elizabeth Cabeza, “The best of 2020 The Truth first look: Koreeda’s French family blowout pits Catherine Deneuve against Juliette Binoche,” Sight and Sound, 19 March 2020 ↩
- Nicolas Rapold, “Interview: Juliette Binoche,” Film Comment, March 12 2020 ↩
- Tony Rayns, “Catherine Deneuve plays a monstrous movie star in Kore-eda’s French Adventure,” Sight and Sound, 19 March 2020 ↩
- Yōko Tawada, The Naked Eye (Cambridge: New Directions, 2004) trans. Susan Bernofsky, p. 200 ↩
- Anthony Lane, “The Generational Anxieties of `The Truth,’” New Yorker (23 March 2020) ↩