Hirokazu Kore-eda, the celebrated Japanese Director (Shoplifters) has returned with his latest film, The Truth. This is the first movie the Japanese writer-director has made in another tongue or country. It also finds him shifting his focus from East to West, the Truth being a French-English film focused on life in its French setting.
A typical marker of Eastern narratives is that they tell stories using a circular structure rather than the more linear, progressive arcs that we find in the West. While Western storytelling tends to be concerned with showing how a character moves or grows from point A to Point B, representing clear pictures of consequence or reward, Eastern storytelling tends to frame its stories through bookends, which allows the body of the film to then explore, often in a more nuanced and less than linear fashion, characters, questions or ideas in a way that brings us back to where the story started with a greater awareness of the character, question or idea. If one pays attention to the story structure in The Truth, you can notice the use of book ends in establishing the film’s central question. We find our main character, played by the wonderfully nuanced and embodied Catherine Deneuve, speaking to reporters in the opening sequence and being asked the question, “what will you say when you get to Heaven.” This is the question that the film then explores, with the Director infusing The Truth with a recognizable Eastern flavor in terms of how he approaches the story in a Western context.
The Film Within a Film: Plot Devices and Character Development
The Truth uses the “film within a film” plot device as a way to explore the central question. Deneuve’s character Fabienne is an aging film star and a mother to a daughter (Lumir, played by Juliette Binoche) whom has decided to pay her a visit along with her husband (Ethan Hawke) and daughter (Clementine Grenier) while Fabienne is shooting her newest film. The film Fabienne is shooting is a science fiction film that tells the story of a mother-daughter relationship, providing an obvious literary (or visual) parallel for the actress’ own relationship with her daughter Lumir.
The film within the film is also a story about aging, exploring the passage of time and the idea of memory, which then becomes a mirror for the struggle that exists between the actress and her daughter as well. These parallel story lines position the characters along a sharply defined generational line. We have the daughters daughter, an optimistic, energetic little girl who looks at the relationships around her with a bright eyed, inquiring disposition. We have the daughter and her husband, representing two, complicated but complimentary nuanced characters whom are trying to navigate life amidst their own struggles (such as Hawke’s character’s past struggle with alcoholism). And then we have the aged mother, whom is forced to look back on her life and contend with her story in light of this broken relationship with her daughter.
Generational Lines And Finding Meaning in the Passage of Time
Littered among this is a cast of auxiliary characters whom provide different shades of perspective on these working generational lines. My favorite is the older family member, I think he is an uncle, and the daughter, whom seem to be lost in their own little, joy filled worlds, even while the relationships around them are breaking down. There is Fabienne’s husband, who is trying to be a voice and a presence in Fabienne’s life while also giving her room to figure things out at her own pace. And there is the fellow actress, whom plays a role alongside Fabienne in the film within a film.
The discussion of these generational lines looks to find meaning in the passage of time from different ends of the spectrum. On one end, the young daughter lives as if she has all the time in the world. On the other end, Fabienne is trying to come to terms with both her life and her career. Through the film’s central question, what becomes clear is Fabienne’s inner struggle. She knows her mistakes and her failures, but she is looking for a way to rewrite her narrative. This translates into material terms, as she describes a concern for sacrificing her soul rather than her body. She chooses to find meaning and worth in her life through her art, but in superficial terms that actively try to disguise the feelings she has of herself on the inside by seeking after admiration and status. She chooses to ignore what her relationship with her daughter was actually like, and as the film goes on, the way that she views her art is also revealed a less than accurate picture of the truth. We see this in her need to compare herself to the actress she is acting alongside in the film within a film, and also in her need to tear down her daughters husband, a self described ‘second rate’ actor who has just happened to find a way to make a living doing what he enjoys. There is a heartfelt honesty to the way that Koreeda depicts Hawke’s character as subtly self aware, offering his genuine appreciation and being in awe of Fabienne’s career and talent. While she tears him down, he keeps on being her biggest fan.
The Performance and The Truth
The presence of her daughter is what keeps the mother from being able to define herself according to these ideas she has created for herself, with her daughter reminding her of her past and forcing her to face it in a more truthful light. This part of the narrative develops alongside the film within the film, offering us a fascinating picture of art informing life, and of life informing art. Increasingly, we get this sense that as Fabienne comes to term with her truth, her performance in the film becomes more and more embodied and more realized as well, which then becomes a cathartic and informing thing for Fabienne that tries to breathe truth back into her off screen relationship with her daughter.
The film’s setting should not be undersold here either. As the daughter and her family are walking up to this grand palace that is their mother’s (and grandmother’s) house, they note its presence as almost fantasy like. This alludes to something of a grand facade, which contrasts later with scenes of them looking out from the house into the grass and the trees and finding a clearer truth, a more defined beauty. The larger setting is Paris, but the house feels isolated and somewhat removed, belonging to a narrative that appears to bound to its own sense of place and time. In this we find a kind of tragic beauty, and a joyful sorrow. There is the lamenting of time lost, time passed, of mistakes that can’t be undone, even as we get this inner longing for second chances, honesty, and renewal. The truth must be faced before it can be reconciled or recast, and these family dynamics persist through the film’s interest in uncovering the truth as that which is hidden, held bondage to the passing of time. It’s as if time wants to forget, but time can also not move forward in a meaningful way until it contends with the past. Which is ultimately what calls them into the present moment.
Facing The Past in This Present Moment
My favorite moment in the film to this end was the dance sequence. It’s such an unexpected scene that breaks through the tension of the relational dynamics and places the film’s question about time, memory and retrospection into the beauty of a moment. It is spontaneous. It’s the one moment in the film where time truly seems to just stop, and we get to see these characters let go of the burden of the passage of the time. It’s the kind of touch only someone like Koreeda could afford, and it captures with such intimate and careful observation this idea that recognizing conflict and tension within ourselves represents a way forward, not the kind of kind of condemnation that leaves us bound to our past. Mistakes and lost opportunities don’t need to render us failures or leave us unloved. In fact, it is in making our failures aware within our relationships that we find freedom, acceptance, forgiveness and understanding.
Bookends and Circular Storytelling: Shedding Light on the Question
As the film returns to the question that we find in the beginning, bookending the journey, we arrive back at this place with a much clearer picture of the truth of who these characters are and the struggles they carry. This helps to shape the central question from within a new and more informed light and understanding. Is Fabienne defined by her failure? Or is her value and worth found in learning to acknowledge her weakness. She allowed her uncertainty about who she is, her disatisfaction with who she is, and her fear of being revealed for who she really is, to build these protective walls of defense, choosing to find her worth in the failure of others rather than in her acceptance of her past. She demeans Hawke’s character, a second rate actor who struggled with alcoholism, while silently struggling with alcohol herself and ignoring what she did to make her way to the top. As her husband says at one point, she needs to feed into her crew and her cast, let them know that she couldn’t do what she is doing without them. She quietly admits to knowing this is the truth, even while still slipping into harmful patterns.
And this is what Koreeda does so well. He has an amazing ability to reach into these different familial and relational dynamics and pull the truth of who they are to the surface, not in a sense of doing away with the struggle and giving everything an easy resolution, but in helping us to imagine the struggle, helping us to see what it is to carry a burden. The film is about coming to grips with the idea that life is not perfect. As Koreeda ruminates on the idea of the passage of time, how we remember, and how we lean into memory in particular ways, becomes a key part of locating and finding the truth. It is a reminder that the ways in which we are shaped by time is intimately connected to ways in which we are shaped by relationship. This is why reconciliation is a relational concept. It is a way of saying, despite our failures we are loved and we can love in return, precisely for who we are and what we are. This is both the risk and the reward that we take when we allow ourselves to face the truth of our lives, helping to bring beauty out of the pain, and helping to recast the truth of who we are over and against the false self, that which is hidden in a performance. And as the film within a film demonstrates, sometimes it is the performance that can help to reveal our true self as well, particularly when we allow our performance to be shaped and informed by our real life experience.