Fabienne Dangeville, the septuagenarian film star played by Catherine Deneuve in The Truth (La Vérité), is an imposing, self-centered diva cut from the same cloth as Bette Davis’s Margo Channing in All About Eve and Shirley MacLaine’s Doris Mann in Postcards from the Edge. Fabienne has a self-described “vicious tongue” that she uses to slice anyone and everyone, with the worst abuse dealt to the people near and dear to her. Juliette Binoche plays Fabienne’s leery daughter Lumir, who takes a break from her job as a screenwriter in New York to visit her world-famous maman on the occasion of Fabienne’s memoirs hitting bookstores. Lumir brings along her middle-aged-hunky American hubby Hank (Ethan Hawke) and her adorable young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) as fortifications against the all-consuming pull of her mother. But naturally, Lumir gets sucked in pretty quickly.
The Truth marks the French-language debut of acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, who specializes in understated and offbeat family dramas, like his 2018 masterpiece, Shoplifters. In its broad strokes, The Truth would just seem to be business as usual for Kore-eda, only with a (mostly) French cast. But the spunky energy of Kore-eda’s actors gives The Truth a slightly more sprightly attitude, with more overt humor than viewers might otherwise expect.There are plenty of low-key subplots bubbling in the family. The semi-mysterious appearances and disappearances of Fabienne’s dotty ex-husband (Roger Van Hool) lead Fabienne to tell her granddaughter that she uses magical powers to turn him into the giant turtle who roams around the nearby yard. Working actor Hank is also a recovering alcoholic, who constantly has to wave off glasses of wine from his hosts but won’t explain why. Fabienne’s manager of many decades (Alain Libolt) quits after being ignored in her memoir.
But the real show is superstars Deneuve and Binoche as mother and daughter. Kore-eda never gives them a big Oscar-clip blow-out, in which their characters can sort through decades of dysfunctional dirty laundry with shouting and tears, but Deneuve and Binoche convey all that baggage in the tiny micro-aggressions and seemingly thoughtless verbal slights that litter their fraught conversations. We are given the sense that Lumir has had to be the realist because her mother has been the self-absorbed fabulist her whole life. When Lumir finally reads her mother’s memoir, she makes notes on all the cheery lies that Fabienne concocted about their relationship.
Despite the rose-colored recollections she committed to paper, Fabienne is haunted by memories of a friend and competitor who seemed to always be better than her both on screen and in real life. Fabienne takes a role in a new sci-fi drama because the lead Manon (Manon Clavel) is the spitting image of her dead pal.
Kore-eda uses the conceit of this film-within-the-film not only to have fun poking at the foibles of film actors, but to tease out issues in his main mother-daughter relationship. The concept of the sci-fi drama is that Manon’s character goes out into space to slow the progress of a disease she has and ends up staying young for decades; meanwhile, her daughter grows old on Earth. Fabienne plays the oldest version of the daughter. (’00s breakout star Ludivine Sagnier makes a fun self-aware appearance as the 38-year-old version of the same character.)
It doesn’t require too close of an examination to see how Kore-eda is using this story to toy with the idea that Lumir the daughter has had to grow up over the years, while Fabienne the mother has not. The young lookalike Manon plays allegorical double-duty too, as the never-aging specter of Fabienne’s idealized friend.
It all sounds terribly thoughtful, I know, but this chamber drama (dramedy?) is far from severe. To borrow a phrase from Scott Nye at Battleship Pretension, the family trauma that The Truth deals with is “lingering but not debilitating.” Fabienne and Lumir are given an understated but powerful scene where they seem to finally overcome their decades of troubles and connect — until Fabienne switches back into actor mode and laments that she should have tapped into these emotions for her performance in the film. Womp womp.
The Truth is as emotionally intelligent as any of Kore-eda’s previous work, but it’s more playful in its concept and execution than many of those other films. This, along with the French setting, helps to distinguish The Truth, but also gives it the sense of being more lightweight. It seems counterintuitive to complain that a film is charming, but after the jaw-dropping perfection of Shoplifters, this can’t help but feel like a (slight) artistic retreat.
Still, Kore-eda must be praised for never going for easy emotions or simple solutions in terms of his characters’ difficulties. There is decided irony in titling this film The Truth, as Kore-eda’s story seems to suggests that some deftly executed lies — both in the cinema and in one’s family — can create greater happiness than 100 percent honesty ever could.
The Truth will be in select theaters and on demand on July 3.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.