Everybody has their version of the truth. As different as those versions might be, we all agree on that fact. We take it for granted so much, that’s almost not worth stating.
That fact drives La Vérité aka The Truth, the first film director Hirokazu Kore-eda set outside of his native Japan. Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche star as Fabienne, an aging legend of French cinema, and her daughter Lumir, who comes from America to visit. Lumir’s visit, with her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), coincides with the publication of Fabienne’s memoir. The memoir presents a very different history than the one Lumir recalls, especially when it comes to Fabienne’s fellow actor and partner/rival Sarah.
A promising young actress whose career ended in suicide, Sarah remains an ideal frozen in the memory of those who knew her. Koreeda is at his best with his treatment of Sarah. Every character has their own personal Sarah. She’s a mother figure for Lumir, a rival for Fabienne, a tragic lost beauty for French cinephiles. The film never establishes any one interpretation, even as an actress reminiscent of Sarah arrives in the form of Fabienne’s latest co-star Manon (Manon Clavel).
In place of narrative facts, Koreeda relays the feelings conjured by Sarah’s memory through visuals. The camera trails behind Fabienne as she walks through a hallway filled with pictures mementos of past glory to a locked box containing a dress Sarah once wore. The softening of Fabienne’s flinty expression and the camera’s slight shake tell us everything we need to know about their relationship. When Lumir watches Fabienne play a tender mother/daughter scene with Manon, the steady push past the monitor and onto Binoche’s face communicates the depth of her longing.
The beautiful camera work from cinematographer Eric Gautier remains a constant throughout the film, especially in the brilliant greens and soft blues of Fabienne’s garden. But far too often, unnecessary exposition clangs over the imagery. A sublime moment in which Hank, already isolated by his limited French and by Fabienne’s disparaging view of his work as a television actor, responds to Lumir’s curt dismissal by reaching for his first drink of alcohol in several years is powerful on its own. But the beauty and horror of the moment diminish when a character observes from off-screen, “Oh shit, he’s drinking.”
The movie’s mistrust of the audience is so much worse when dealing more with the film’s theme of truth and memory. It gets away with Fabienne’s rejoinder, “It’s my story; I’m not allowed to tell it how I want?” because the line happens early and because Deneuve delivers it with an egotistical innocence. But by the time that film decides to explain the relationship between plot metaphors — the memoir, Lumir’s screenwriting job, Fabienne’s role in a sci-fi film about an estranged mother and her daughter— the dialogue thuds.
We know that everyone has their own version of the truth. While there’s value in exploring the tension of that fact, especially between mother and daughter, this reliance on exposition reduces characters to mundane observers instead of humans navigating complex emotions. Each metaphor piles onto the next, repeating instead of expounding upon a point we all already understand.
The cast tries to dig their characters out from under this weight. Deneuve dodges Norma Desmond clichés to make Fabienne genuinely principled and not an egotistical monster. Binoche gives Lumir the dignity of a woman who wants to move past the past, despite the hurt haunting the corners of her eyes. Hawke plays Hank’s comic outsider status without reducing him to a buffoon. And Grenier feels like a real 8-year-old on-screen, selling the warmth of her interactions with her family more effectively than the sometimes schmaltzy score.
If La Vérité would just be silent a little more, just trust the craft of the visuals and the actors to let us feel the point it makes, then the movie would be far more meaningful. But I suppose that would be my own version of The Truth.