Whenever you get a movie by a postmodernist titled THE TRUTH (La Vérité), you know truth will be an uncertain thing, multiple and fragmented. This may sound grim, but in the latest film from Hirokazu Kore-eda it’s anything but. Warm and witty, piquant yet gentle, it might be just the film you’re looking for this holiday season.
The story is easy to follow for anyone familiar with French cinema. Lumir (a playful misspelling of the French “lumière,” meaning light) returns home from a self-imposed exile in the States where she works as a screenwriter alongside her American husband and daughter. We soon learn why Lumir (Juliette Binoche) needed an ocean between herself and her mother. Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) is one of the most celebrated actors in France, and her presence not only subsumes her entire castle-like mansion in Paris but her entire household.
The first act centers on the publication of Fabienne’s memoir. In public, it sells like hot cakes, but at home it crushes and enrages her daughter, alienates a long-time assistant, and is generally read by everyone who knows her as self-flattering autofiction. Lumir’s father, very much alive, is presented as dead. Sarah, a competitor and friend of Fabienne’s as well as a woman who often stepped into a mothering role for Lumir, never appears at all. Neither does Luc, a longtime assistant and colleague of Fabienne’s. Even her relationship with her daughter is presented as idyllic, something out of a children’s fairytale. Outraged by Fabienne’s disregard for the truth, people begin to reject her, and Lumir’s difficult relationship with her mother corrodes further into resentment, blame, and distrust.
Meanwhile, Fabienne is co-starring in a film titled MEMORIES OF MY MOTHER alongside up-and-coming young actress Manon (Manon Clavel), who reminds everyone of Sarah. Decades earlier, Sarah committed suicide, and Lumir remains haunted by the suspicion that her mother, relentlessly competitive, was somehow responsible. This is Lumir’s particular version of her mother—a destroyer of all things kind and delicate.
The film-within-the-film, however, reverses Fabienne’s role, casting her as the daughter of a mother who never ages. Adapted from Ken Liu’s short story of the same title, MEMORIES OF MY MOTHER forces Fabienne to confront her own aging as well as why family connections have been so difficult for her. As the film-within-the-film approaches its climax, both Lumir and Fabienne begin to realize how their own versions of the truth have been shaped by their personal views of the past, rather than the present reality.
It’s exactly what most of us want from a French dramedy. But that isn’t what makes it special. What makes it special is Japanese writer-director Kore-eda.
Most French cinema encourages the viewer to cheer for a well-placed barb, a witty insult. That’ll teach them, we’re encouraged to say. But Kore-eda isn’t about that.
He generously places the viewer in the position of wanting kindness from characters, not sadism; connection, not victory. In each scene, he extends invitations to both characters and audience to become better people. With the guidance of Kore-eda’s lens, which never shies away from the wounds such words can inflict, the viewer cringes when characters choose cruelty.
Relationships through a Western lens are so often viewed as battlefields where there are winners and losers (Noah Baumbach’s opening tennis match in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE crystallizes this approach to family in North American and European cinema). But in Kore-eda’s film, we flinch when Fabienne tells her husband Jacques he has only one good quality. We wince when she tells Lumir’s actor-husband that his work is only a cheap imitation. We want her to be compassionate. We want her to see her daughter’s heartache, and we want her to care.
The film is ultimately about compromise—the compromises we must make with the essential unknowability of another person and our own personal truth about them.
It is also about roles and the stories we narrate through them. By the end, these dynamics have shifted not because of some powerful, objective truth but because family members have shifted their roles, and their own narratives. It’s never easy to change, and so Lumir must write lines for some of the characters, scripting new dynamics for them. But if there is one truth that Kore-eda’s title refers to, it is an emotional one.
On the surface, this family is no more truthful at the end than they were at the beginning. But they do understand each other better, and Lumir—the most hurt and frustrated of anyone—has come to a degree of acceptance about who her mother is. Fabienne loves Lumir, but she thinks of acting more often than she thinks of anyone else. Both these things can be true.
The repetition of experience embedded in the plot only underscores the difference between past and present, one person and another, and the necessity of living in the present. Manon will never be Sarah. The daughter’s stay in her mother’s childhood room will never resemble Lumir’s childhood experience of being locked away, a princess trapped in a tower.
And so the surprising scene where Fabienne gifts Manon a treasured dress is never quite what anyone wants it to be, even the viewer. In their slightly sinister attempt to resurrect Sarah using the body of the unsuspecting Manon, they are seeking a kind of wish-fulfillment. Like children just realizing the possibilities of a new discovery, they test how far they can go with new truths. How much can we change the truth by rewriting it? Perhaps Sarah did not die at all. Perhaps they’ll know, once and for all, whether her death was Fabienne’s fault or not.
But Manon simply turns and leaves, returning the family to themselves, with their hurts and misunderstandings and love. Like the science-fiction film-within-a-film, each encounter with someone we love is different. Better to be generous and simply love than to cling to old hurts, wishing for a truth that will make us comfortable. It is supremely hard to do. But towards the end, for a few brief and beautiful moments, this family achieves something that looks very much like unity, and very much like love.
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THE TRUTH can be rented from: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.