“The Truth” is okay, but it won’t set you free

The Truth Ethan Hawke, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, and Clémentine Grenier in The Truth. (IFC Films)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film outside of his native Japan is a light, star-studded family affair of modest potential and diminishing returns.

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The Truth is not a subtle film. Let’s just get that out of the way first.

And no, subtlety need not be a requirement. It’s simply a matter what shaped peg goes into what shaped hole. Lack of subtlety invites more self-awareness to fill the gap, a decided lack of self-awareness invites a more distant or peripheral approach to the material, and so forth. Such is how much of The Truth operates. Its hall-of-mirrors approach both heightens and downplays its drama in a breezy, engaging perspective. Or, at least, it does for a while.

We open with Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), a famed actor in the midst of promoting her new book, The Truth (or La Vérité). Her answers are forthright while her emotions hide behind a smokescreen of nicotine, not the least is being put to the test by the upcoming visit of her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche). Lumir is a screenwriter, resentful of Fabienne’s standoffish parenting. And she seems to have learned from it too—at least enough to save her own daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), from a similar fate. And as for Lumir’s recently teetotal husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke)? Well, he’s just happy to be here.

It’s when the trio arrives at Fabienne’s house—or “castle,” as Charlotte puts it—that the dynamics begin to unfold. It’s pretty basic stuff, at least in a sort of scaled-down Brechtian sense. And that’s what makes The Truth so curious for something that doesn’t stick the landing: character interactions are lived-in and intimate, but its meta devices are so overt in their functions that the reflective detachment diminishes with time. There’s a film within a film here, but there still isn’t enough to grasp on to.

Yes, one of the largest motifs in The Truth is a sci-fi picture Fabienne is starring in. It’s largely an excuse to give its central characters fictionalized equals by placing them in a closed proscenium, but it works at points. There are some sharp, quiet moments between Fabienne and younger star Manon (Manon Clavel) that help blur the line between the former’s work and her insecurities, and Hirokazu Kore-eda writes and directs these scenes matter-of-factly. His usual bouts of soft comedy are here, but at the film’s best moments, they’re stern enough to point to something deeper.

Alas, that never fully comes to fruition. The Truth is an admittedly minor work in the grand scheme of things, and while that’s fine, it works far better on a scene-by-scene basis than as a whole. Its supporting characters function as barometers to gauge how well rounded the script is.

[C]haracter interactions are lived-in and intimate, but its meta devices are so overt in their functions that the reflective detachment diminishes with time.

Take Hank, for example. He exists almost exclusively on the peripheries as Lumir’s husband and, as a “second-rate TV actor” and recovering alcoholic, alludes to a larger disconnect. Not just in the arts world, mind you, but in this family specifically: how the family bobs farther from Fabienne’s prima donna lifestyle with passing generations. The elements are here. Kore-eda, unfortunately, neglects these shadings, redirecting The Truth into its more affluent clichés. His tender sense of humor gives a humanity to what could have otherwise been alien to most viewers, but the missed opportunities are hard to shake.

And that’s generally what the final product feels like. Kore-eda’s film understands the difference between truth and fact, between subjective and objective. It also marks a seamless cultural shift for his first picture outside of his native Japan. He and DP Eric Gautier also do some nice work, using blocking and the occasional handheld shot to tease a visual synchronicity between characters and surroundings. But ultimately, it’s a harmless—and resultantly unremarkable—tour through a gallery of personal issues.

The Truth opens in select theaters and on VOD this Friday, July 3.

The Truth Trailer:

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