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“I’d prefer to have been a bad mother and a bad friend but a good actress,” says Fabienne, the unapologetically narcissistic French screen legend portrayed with supreme aplomb and an ample dollop of self-irony by Catherine Deneuve in The Truth. That blunt declaration is typical of a sharp-edged, aloof woman who has always placed her work ahead of her personal relationships. The first film made by accomplished writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda outside his native Japan is a thin but charming love letter to Deneuve, paired with a soulful Juliette Binoche as the screenwriter daughter whose childhood resentments are stirred up by the publication of her mother’s memoir.
The autumnal drama fits within the thematic framework of Kore-eda’s filmography, with its frequent exploration of memory, of the intricate ties and absences of family, the tricky balance between love and personal responsibility and the sometimes daunting distances separating children and parents.
It doesn’t come close to the piercing intimacy, poetry, depth or illuminating social context of the homegrown work of a director often deservingly regarded as the contemporary heir to Ozu and Naruse — qualities very much evident in exquisite films like Nobody Knows, Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son. But it has the playful lightness of touch, the wit and warmth that are an essential part of the Kore-eda signature; it’s also an affectionate ode to French cinema itself, which could steer the reach of the IFC release away from this leading filmmaker’s many existing admirers to a different audience.
An opening scene that’s both hilarious and incisive in terms of character introduces Fabienne as she endures being interviewed by an adoring but nervous journalist (Laurent Capelluto). She haughtily dismisses questions she has answered in past profiles, scoffs at the supposed talents of an acting contemporary she mistakenly assumes is dead and acknowledges the influence of no actress who came before her, nor the inheritance of her DNA by anyone since. Even the lukewarm tea displeases her.
Deneuve is priceless here and in similar moments, like Fabienne considering how many great French actresses have alliterated initials — Michele Morgan, Simone Signoret, Anouk Aimee — before turning up her nose with a dismissive shrug when someone tries granting Brigitte Bardot entry to the club. It’s deliciously impossible here and elsewhere to separate Deneuve from the role she’s playing; this jibes with a film in which the lines between performance and reality — or truth, as the title more baldly states — are constantly questioned.
The clumsy Bardot mention comes from Fabienne’s affable American son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke), an actor whose work in television elicits its own eye-rolls. “Actor is saying a lot,” quips Fabienne dryly when he’s thus described.
Her daughter Lumir (Binoche) has come from New York for a rare family visit to Paris with Hank and their bilingual preteen child Charlotte (Clementine Grenier), who is immediately enchanted by the chateau-like aspect of Fabienne’s roomy old house, nestled in lush gardens full of trees whose leaves are turning golden in the fall. Lumir is quick to point out that the house sits in front of a prison.
An ancient turtle named Pierre roams the grounds. Lumir mischievously hints to Charlotte that the girl’s grandmother is the witch from a favorite childhood story who turns ill-favored people into animals. Fabienne doesn’t disabuse Charlotte of the idea, especially once the girl’s eccentric grandfather, also named Pierre (Roger Van Hool, who played Deneuve’s lover in 1968’s La Chamade), shows up uninvited at his ex-wife’s house.
Not having been sent an advance copy of her mother’s book, Lumir is incensed by the artistic license taken in its effusive depiction of maternal love. “I’m an actress, I won’t tell the unvarnished truth,” shoots back Fabienne in a typically cool response. “It’s far from interesting.” In a thread that lacks clarity in Kore-eda’s script, the memoir revives the ghost of Sarah, an actress friend of the family who became almost a mother figure to Lumir and whose considerable talent made her a threat to Fabienne. That specter from the past surfaces also through Manon (Manon Clavil), the star of a sci-fi drama Fabienne is shooting who has been widely compared to Sarah.
Lumir isn’t the only one whose feathers are ruffled by the memoir. Fabienne’s loyal, long-serving personal assistant Luc (Alain Libolt) is so hurt by having merited not a single line in the book that he abruptly quits just as production on the film-within-the-film is starting. Deneuve again brings tart humor to the evidence that Fabienne has never stopped to consider the life of this man with six grandchildren beyond his service to her. Her struggle to commit the kids’ names to memory before a rapprochement organized — in fact scripted — by Lumir is quite amusing, as is Fabienne’s complete inability to apologize to a man for anything.
Kore-eda digs further into the complicated mother-daughter relationship via soundstage scenes on the shoot of the sci-fi film, titled Memories of My Mother. This is adapted from American author Ken Liu’s 2012 flash fiction piece of the same name, about a woman with a terminal illness who cheats time by spending extended periods in space, remaining unchanged while her daughter continues aging. Deneuve plays the septuagenarian version of the latter character, carving touching interludes out of scenes in which Fabienne’s envy of Manon and her fears of being washed up combine first to mess with her focus and then to heighten her performance. The intimations of Deneuve’s own late-career reflections are quietly affecting.
As her garden takes on the more somber colors of winter, Fabienne appears to acquire new humility and sensitivity, influenced not just by Lumir but also by her own kind romantic partner Jacques (Christian Crahay), and more unexpectedly, by Manon. But whether Fabienne is even capable of change, or is merely restocking her emotional arsenal to inform her performance both onscreen and off, remains ambiguous in Deneuve’s elusive characterization.
While the initial spark for the project came from Binoche, who has a history of collaborating with interesting directors from outside France (Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, for example), her role here is secondary in what’s primarily a character study of a celebrated female star facing a crossroads. There are, however, subtle shadings in Binoche’s exploration of the way Lumir’s life choices have been shaped by her mother’s self-absorption, and the rapport between them is never banal. Hawke has far less to do, but he’s an appealing presence, not least in Hank’s scenes with the eternally curious Charlotte. Grenier’s naturalness shows that Kore-eda’s skill at working with children is not confined to his Japanese films. A quick throwaway scene in which Charlotte lies to a young professional actress on the film set about having her own Hollywood career is lovely.
The character-driven film is shot by Eric Gautier in suitably muted tones and without any fussy movement. (Fabienne’s dismissal of the jittery visuals on the Memories director’s previous movie — “Does a camera stand cost that much?” — gets a big laugh.) And wisely sparing use is made of Alexei Aigui’s tinkly score.
The Truth bears passing similarities to Ira Sachs’ Frankie, which bowed in Cannes this year and was built around another sacred French screen queen, in that case Isabelle Huppert. Both films seem a tad thin and superficial compared to their directors’ more layered work at home. But Deneuve’s slyly self-satirizing performance — it will escape no one that Fabienne goes to bed at night and wakes up each morning in flawless full makeup and with perfectly cascading hair — ensures that The Truth remains a pleasurable entertainment.
Production companies: 3B Productions, Bunbuku & M.I. Movies, France 3 Cinema
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Clementine Grenier, Manon Clavil, Alain Libolt, Christian Crahay, Roger Van Hool, Ludivine Sagnier, Laurent Capelluto, Maya Sansa, Jackie Berroyer
Director-screenwriter: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Producer: Muriel Merlin
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Riton Dupier-Clement
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Music: Alexei Aigui
Editor: Kore-eda Hirozaku
Casting: Kris Portier de Bellair
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch
In French, English
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