The Truth review – Kore-eda’s French melodrama hits a false note

The Japanese director follows Shoplifters with a tepid chamber piece that even Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche can't save

The road taken by acclaimed international directors making their English-language debuts is paved with cautionary tales. For every The Lobster, there is a My Blueberry Nights. Yet the relatively low success rate didn’t stop Palme d’or-winning Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) from taking such risks when he moved to France in order to make The Truth.

His latest is a tepid chamber piece weaving together a story of unresolved family issues, the therapeutic power of acting, and a wonky thread of truths and lies. Scoring an all-star cast of both European and American talent, Kore-eda plays by the rules of the high-geared French comedy-drama, but the end result – as though stripped of the careful focus of his Japanese features – falls mostly flat.

At the film’s centre is Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve, immensely at ease), a garrulous and self-absorbed veteran actress who has just penned her elegantly insincere autobiography. To celebrate its launch, her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) visits from New York, bringing seemingly carefree American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and lively daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) along for the ride. It doesn’t take long for the confrontations to begin: Fabienne and Lumir – having never enjoyed an idyllic mother-daughter relationship – quickly find the closeness is causing past tensions to resurface.

By now, Kore-eda’s name has long been associated with family dramas. In his films, muffled ruptures perturb the calm of everyday life and incite the characters to seek solace while stitching patches to the rips of the past. In this sense, The Truth is no different, but here the knot of overlooked and unspoken discrepancies between mother and daughter are at first too vague and later too maudlin. The usual elusiveness and grace are nowhere to be found. In their stead we find a bunch of roughly sketched characters with whom it’s hard to empathise. Hank, in particular, hardly fits into the picture. As the only American in a French house, he’s left at the margins of the frame, while the plot leaves him hanging around as an accessory to the long overdue mother-daughter rendezvous.

Fabienne’s mansion is sumptuous, baroque, its rooms presented as open spaces adorned with knickknacks and furniture barely answering to any kind of architectural disposition, if not to Fabienne’s upper-class taste. Yet Kore-eda struggles to find his dimension in this airy western house. As a consequence, the camera awkwardly moves within the unfamiliar space, always chasing after the characters but failing to connect. At times, curious shots frame these people from behind as they talk, leaving us to ponder whether a hidden meaning has been lost somewhere along the way.

After the tremendously successful Shoplifters, a film that looked with empathy at people on the fringe of society with such great care and affection, Kore-eda turns his camera not only to a different country but to an antipodal social class. It’s difficult not to question the choice. The outcome is dry and forgettable, distinctly lacking the one thing we have come to expect from every new Kore-eda picture: soul.

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