Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke work under director Hirokazu Kore-eda for The Truth — now streaming on Showtime — and that combination of talent should be enough to draw in potential viewers. The film draws upon Deneuve’s status as a French film legend, with the star of Belle de Jour and Repulsion playing a role she knows well — a French film legend. Binoche plays her screenwriter daughter and Hawke is an actor and the relatively new son-in-law, and you’ll be happy to hear that Kore-eda transcends the movie-about-movies thing to tell a thoughtful story about generational relationships.
The Gist: “I’ve always been myself,” Fabienne Dangeville (Deneuve) insists during an interview with a journalist. That’s probably a lie. She’s promoting her new memoir, La Verite (translation: yep, The Truth) which is full of stuff that isn’t the title of the book. She’s asked about the movie she’s currently filming, and she bluntly replies, “It won’t be a great film.” That’s probably also a lie, delivered because she plays in support of a young, talented newcomer, and Fabienne burns with a competition inside her. She speaks her mind. She’s bluntly critical. In her head, she is singular, and she has no problem saying it, out loud even, to whoever is in the room.
Acting defines Fabienne, and has defined her for so long, maybe she isn’t the self she thought she was. This idea emerges when her daughter, Lumir (Binoche) brings her family — husband Hank (Hawke) and young daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) — to Fabienne’s sprawling Paris manse, nestled into a woodsy patch that feels like it’s in the country when you can’t occasionally hear the passing commuter train. There’s a bit of Mommie Dearest in the Fabienne-Lumir relationship; daughter begins calling out mother for the fabrications in her memoir, especially those that paint her as a loving and attentive parent when she quite clearly wasn’t.
Conveniently, the movie within this movie is directly applicable to Fabienne’s current retrospective situation. It’s a sci-fi fable about a terminally ill woman who ventures into space, where she doesn’t age, fending off the illness. She stays 20-odd years old, I don’t know, indefinitely? Regardless, she returns to Earth every seven years to see her daughter, who eventually reaches her 70s and is played by Fabienne. So in the midst of roiling, prickly verbal combat with Lumir, and adorable moments of bonding with her granddaughter, and dressing down her hacky TV-actor son-in-law, she gets some perspective forced on her. If she doesn’t accept or acknowledge or embrace the ideas brought upon her by playing a character that’s an analog of her own daughter, she’ll fail mightily in the role. And that just can’t happen.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Driven by its slyly psychoanalytical dialogue, The Truth is like a more subtle, way more French Woody Allen picture.
Performance Worth Watching: Deneuve and Binoche are exceptional here. Without their chemistry, the film might be rote, painfully average.
Memorable Dialogue: Fabienne minces nary a syllable when looking back at her life: “I was a bad mother, a bad friend, but so what? I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend and a good actress.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: “You can’t trust memory” is a common refrain in Kore-eda’s dialogue here. Multiple characters say it, and the filmmaker pretty much asserts that people need to acknowledge the past and move on in order to maintain some semblance of happiness. Hearing Fabienne flex her ego at every opportunity reveals that the walls around her are fortified by years of public adoration, critical acclaim and self-protection. Lumir and Charlotte go to the sci-fi set to watch Fabienne work, and Fabienne chastises her daughter: “Don’t call me Mom.” “What should I call you then?” “Fabienne. Or Fabi.”
Although the premise of The Truth — essentially couched within the premise of the movie-within-the-movie — feels manufactured to make a point, the character work here is extraordinary. Deneuve and Binoche’s mother-daughter dynamic is a puzzle of conflicting emotions that really can’t be solved. (The movie kind of tries to solve them anyway, with slightly underwhelming results.) Their exchanges are steeped in decades of bitter feelings, but they know and understand each other so intimately, affection emerges whether they intend it or not.
Spending 100 minutes with these warring women might be a chore without the choice hues of the supporting cast. Hawke is funny as the American who nods cluelessly as everyone around him speaks French. Lumir’s eccentric and somewhat estranged father, Pierre (Roger Van Hool), emerges almost literally from the underbrush of Fabienne’s yard; unsurprisingly, he was mistreated, and Fabienne tells her granddaughter that she used her magic to transform him into the turtle who lives on the grounds. Alan Libolt plays Luc, Fabienne’s long-suffering personal assistant, who threatens to quit when she fails to mention him even once in her autobiography. It’s telling that Fabienne asks her daughter to write a script she can use to lure him back. It’s these interactions, the details of terrific character performances, that make The Truth much more than its bland thematic assertions.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Truth more or less convincingly wrangles with the nebulousness of the thing in the title, but the lowercase-t truth here is, it’s a damn good actor’s showcase.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Truth’ on Showtime, a Terrific Acting Showcase for Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Decider.