What’s going on in a film that presents characters discussing whether or not people should place their faith in memory? Of course, it is a shifty and shifting notion, subject to perception and perspective and ultimately a tricky degree of impermanence. Almost 20 years ago, Christopher Nolan adapted Memento from a short story written by his brother Jonathan that twisted audiences, the narrative’s timeline and the tenuous link between memory and the truth up in impossible knots.
The Truth, the new film from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda (Shoplifters), isn’t as concerned with the same level of mind games as Nolan’s thriller, but it questions the role of memory in interpersonal family dynamics, its own unique hornet’s nest.
Juliette Binoche plays Lumir, a screenwriter who lives in a somewhat self-imposed exile with her small-time actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), far away from her famous mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), an actress with a soon-to-be released autobiography and a new role in a science fiction movie about a mother who never ages. Lumir somewhat reluctantly returns to France with her family in tow and upon entering her mother’s orbit, finds herself at odds with the competing realities she and her mother have about their shared history.
What’s most fascinating about The Truth is that the narrative refuses to rush into explosive melodrama and the kind of hysteria expected from Hollywood insider family tales. This isn’t Mommie Dearest, although it is plain that Fabienne was not the easiest or most loving parental figure. In fact, she’s the first to admit that the work and her legacy as an actress were more meaningful to her than being a good and present mother. Going a step further, Fabienne has few qualms about sleeping with a director to secure a pivotal role, which led to the suicide of a fellow actor who happened to be a close friend and a maternal substitute for Lumir.
All Fabienne has is her story, captured in her autobiography and it doesn’t matter whether or not it is factually accurate. As the old adage goes, Fabienne happily prints the legend and moves forward.
That’s impossible for Lumir to accept, especially as she watches Fabienne continue to walk all over those closest to her as if they (and their contributions to her success) don’t matter. She starts to wonder if time and the impermanence of memory are starting to impact Fabienne, but all of this is expertly contrasted with the more mundane struggles she has with Hank, a far-less successful actor who creates rationalizations of his situation in order to hold onto his place in her life and that of their daughter, although he clearly loves his family dearly.
Koreeda has a novelistic approach to filmmaking. Beginning with an intriguing literary premise, he releases his audience into a setting alongside characters inhabiting spaces with no plot-driven purpose. We are more than flies on the wall because he creates a sense of intimacy, drawing viewers in carefully and trusting his actors to forego the urge to “act” at all. Instead, as the actors become people moving through their worlds, a familiar rapport develops between the performers and the audience.
In all the ways that matter, Koreeda, in his previous film Shoplifters (which I caught on the festival circuit back in 2018) pulled off a far-more humanistic feat comparable to Parasite, without the stylistic flourishes and obvious class distinctions that captured our collective cultural fancy. It was the story of a loose assembly of petty crooks who took a small child in, incorporating her into the shoplifting schemes that kept them alive on the margins of society.
Parasite inflated the scale and scope of that dynamic, formalizing the relationships and the social divide, which in turn transformed the invisible (the poor marginalized family) into a warrior class, ready to either replace or stick it to The Man (the rich elites who looked down on them) figuratively and literally.
With Shoplifters and The Truth as well, Koreeda dares to question the mistaken power in smaller truths. Shoplifters didn’t need the bold and violent results Bong Joon-Ho gave us in Parasite. And The Truth, which never completely or explicitly offers any clarity about different memories presented of past events, matters more because it acknowledges that everybody’s take on those situations matter. There is no right or wrong, no absolute truth.
Memory and truth are revealed to be the foundation of faith and trust, which in the film are well-earned thanks to the lived-in performances of a stellar cast. Binoche, Deneuve, and Hawke are all superlative without drawing undue attention to their efforts. The Truth grants its brand of fiction real meaning. (PG) Grade: B