Unlike many stories about family histories and long-ago slights, Hirokazu Koreeda’s (Kore-eda) The Truth (La vérité) does not invest much time playing around with just how bad a mother Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) was to her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). Given Fabienne’s irritation at any non-flattering mention of the past, her refusal to consider the impact of all her insults over the years, and constant undercutting of Lumir, this is not a question that has many possible answers. Then there is this line that Fabienne delivers during one of their blowouts about just how little attention she devoted to her daughter’s childhood: “Isn’t a little neglect better than being a helicopter mom?”
Icy little droplets like that are scattered throughout The Truth. They bring a continual charge to what would otherwise be a somewhat low-key though diverting family drama. Like many such stories, it begins with a visit from a daughter who has moved away and has come back, heading for a fight, whether they want it or not. Lumir, a screenwriter living in New York, has returned to her childhood home in Paris ostensibly to celebrate the publication of Fabienne’s memoir.
Just as Fabienne is almost purposefully oblivious to her own cold-bloodedness (which she tries to pass off as “honesty”, the classic defense of the un-self-aware), Lumir doesn’t acknowledge just how much she is looking for a fight. “I can’t find any truth in here!” Lumir shouts at her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) while angrily flipping through the memoir, diligently taking notes and flagging particularly offensive pages.
What Lumir also doesn’t realize is that she’s arrived at a vulnerable moment for her mother. In the middle of shooting a movie that requires her to play opposite rising young ingenue Manon (Manon Clavel), Fabienne is even more prickly. She can now see very vividly the tombstone of her once storied career in this ludicrous-seeming sci-fi movie (three actresses playing the same woman in a convoluted take on relativity). At the same time, Manon reminds her of Sarah, a passed-away actress friend of the family who was something of a surrogate daughter.
The lashing out is quietly delivered, but it comes with fangs. When not cutting down her daughter (“My memories, my book”), her put-upon husband’s eager-to-please cooking (“I prefer your tiramisu”), or being compared to Brigitte Bardot (“Whatever”), Fabienne is panicking about the only thing she claims to truly care about: Her acting.
Fortunately, in Koreeda’s hands, Deneuve has room to shade Fabienne with glimpses of unpredictable warmth. On the page, she has the potential to be caricatured as some combination of ogre and Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond. But Fabienne becomes a more sympathetic and complex character. Embarrassed at how much more prepared and on-point Manon seems to be in their filming, Fabienne pulls out everything she has for one climactic scene between the two of them. Deneuve’s emotions calibrate so precisely in the moment that without words we can see Fabienne pivot from her character’s heartache, to the real sadness she mined for the scene, to a sharp twinge of embarrassment that somebody may have just seen the real her.
As the extent of Fabienne’s vulnerability becomes clearer, Lumir starts to lose some of her edge, while still looking for a way to get some emotional vindication out of her mother. Binoche’s balancing of agitation and calculation is delicately managed, especially in the later stretches when she and Deneuve slide into a less combative stance. The back-and-forth retains its acidic wit, however, which Deneuve and Binoche deliver with the deftest touch.
Meanwhile, Hawke is on the edges, looking on with the perplexed smile of a man who would like to be in on the joke but just doesn’t speak French. Playing this slightly dopey TV actor with ease, Hawke gives Hank a gleeful sense of mischief whenever he’s playing with their daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) or brushing off illusions about the shallow extent of his talent. He knows the truth about himself, and is fairly sure that both Lumir and Fabienne will figure out what’s driving both of them once their matrilineal combat is exhausted.
For Koreeda’s first non-Japanese movie, The Truth is not the sort of film that will likely introduce him to a broad new audience, even in a world where movie theaters were still open. Funny, thoughtful, and occasionally wicked, it feels closer to his more genial entertainments like Our Little Sister (2015) than his sharper and more barbed pieces like Shoplifters (2018) or Like Father, Like Son (2013).
In one of The Truth‘s better moments, the family has just left a restaurant and come across a small band playing in a courtyard. Without a word, Hank and Fabienne take each other’s hands and begin to dance. In seconds, everyone else is following along. Nighttime, Paris, a twirling of bodies. Potentially hokey, of course. But as Koreeda stages it here, it feels more like a respite. Everybody in the scene might be filled with secrets, recriminations, and the memories of betrayals delivered and received. But they also know that they’re family. There will always be time to fight again in the morning.