This year’s Venice Film Festival launched with The Truth, a very French comedy from Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda, his first non-Japanese picture. Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is an ageing star of French cinema. Her self-aggrandizing memoirs have just been published and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), along with her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), return to Paris with their daughter to celebrate the occasion.
One immediate consequence is the resignation of Fabienne’s factotum, whose implacable calm has been fatally dented by his complete absence in Fabienne’s autobiography. The vacuum has to be filled by Lumir, who finds herself in close proximity to her mother for the first time in years, making her chamomile and getting her to the set of a new science fiction film in which Fabienne plays a daughter abandoned by her mother.
Everything is very “meta”. And the film within a film is complete hogwash (as they almost always are), its sole and obvious purpose to highlight Fabienne’s own failings as a mother and her fragile sense of self-worth when confronted by an actress who is being touted as a younger version of her old rival and frenemy, the long-dead but constantly referred to Sarah. As well as Lumir being a screenwriter who also writes lines for her mother to use in real life when apologising, Hank is a self-confessed second rate TV actor, with the lingering remains of a drinking problem. The obviousness of the points is forgivable because of the light and easy charm of the film, as delicate of the late autumn leaves that drift down from the trees in the garden.
Kore-eda has always been interested in families in moments of crisis, whether its the improvised family of the Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters or the parentless children of Nobody Knows. This tale is a much lighter and less substantial piece. A souffle if you will. And the family itself has few real problems. Fabienne is a glorious monster, a Royal Tennenbaum type of entertaining egoist and Deneuve gobbles up the scenes which are handed to her on a silver platter.
Eric Gautier’s cinematography is imbued with an easy beauty; catching the autumnal Parisian light as it enters rooms from tall windows. Deneuve has been captured countless times but there are several portraits of the French star here that could bear comparison with shots from the height of her career. She and Binoche have a whale of a time playing off each other, with Deneuve getting the lioness’ share. Hawke sensibly stands back and lets them go.
There are some sophisticated family dynamics and as this is Kore-eda’s forte they make up the strongest scenes. And though there’s a poignancy to Fabienne’s fading star – she also has an incipient drinking problem – nothing as serious as a hangover impinges. Eccentric characters come and go and this is a Paris with an accordion band on the corner of each boulevard. Early on we are told that her house is in immediate proximity to a prison but there’s nary a shadow cast by any real-world problems.
The truth is that The Truth is an above-average French comedy and Kore-eda has succeeded in a finely wrought act of ventriloquism and diva worship. But the Japanese director’s fans can be forgiven for thinking above average is not good enough for such an accomplished filmmaker.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty