Ostensibly, the new French-language film THE TRUTH is about the relationship between an aging mother and her adult daughter, but really, it’s about actors. The way actors direct their focus inward, how their self-awareness influences how they evaluate and respond to things, and the way that their emotional experiences inform performance, what Lee Strasberg called “The Method,” these are the drivers of the narrative in filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new dramedy. Two of his main characters in the story are actors, and the third is a screenwriter, so it’s all about show biz. And in the central character of actress Fabienne Dangeville, Kore-eda has written a lead who personifies the word diva, a star who can only behave like the self-centered woman that she is. To Fabienne, any and all truths are relative; there is no objectivity, only her very subjective take on everything great or small.
Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne and when the character is introduced, a reporter is interviewing the legendary actress about her new autobiography that’s just been published. He inquires what she hopes God will say to her when arriving at the pearly gates. Rather than give him a legitimate answer, Fabienne notes that his query was the last one saved for each episode of the television program INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO. She mentions James Lipton’s long-running program because ultimately, that’s what matters more to her: a show concentrating on the importance of actors.
Nowhere is her hubris more apparent than when Fabienne interacts with her adult daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). Lumir is living in the States with her actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and young daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier), but they’ve all ventured to Paris for the launch of the book. After reading La Verite, the book’s ironic title, Lumir cannot believe how many lies her mother has told within the pages. But for Fabienne, lies aren’t lies, they’re just embellishments of a ‘script’ that needed some juicing. Fabienne wants to entertain her audience at all touch-points so she fibs and fabricates her way through her own story.
Her mother’s fakery has stuck in Lumir’s craw like an ardent seed for decades, and searching for genuine truth and meaning in the world has become her lifelong excursion. It’s also driven Lumir to choose a path different from her mother’s in may ways, from her profession to her appearance. Lumir is part of show biz, but she remains behind the camera as a screenwriter. Her appearance seems to be a calculation to counter her mother as well. Lumir’s looks tend towards the Bohemian style, both in her soft, dark clothes and her lank hair. Fabienne, on the other hand, always seems decked out for a photoshoot, even dressing to the nines in a leopard mink to walk the dog.
Kore-eda is a very subtle filmmaker, however, and his story never becomes too obvious or over-the-top. As many outrageous things as Fabienne says, Deneuve tosses such bon mots off with aplomb, never turning arch or comical in the reading. And even though the filmmaker’s script has mother and daughter exchange plenty of bitchy gibes, their banter never reaches the level of camp. It’s a tremendously disciplined piece, performed by two actresses who have never been the sort to overact anyway.
The seriousness at play within the script is never more apparent than in how Kore-eda treats the film within the film that Fabienne is shown acting in. It’s a science-fiction story, of all things, but rather than treat the genre as adventurish fluff, Kore-eda treats it as a place to show Fabienne’s sublime talent, as well as to showcase his profound ideas about ageism, feminism, and family. Indeed, the sci-fi story comments on the very relationship between Fabienne and Lumir on several thoughtful levels.
In the sci-fi movie, Fabienne plays the daughter of a woman whose mother comes to visit after being away on a spacecraft for decades. Space travel in her controlled environment has allowed the mother to remain ageless, looking every bit the same age of 22 as when she had her daughter. The daughter, on the other hand, has aged normally on earth and is now an old woman of 70. It’s extraordinary to watch such a dynamic play out, and seeing Fabienne express the vulnerabilities in her performance that she won’t let her family see at home is utterly moving.
It also reiterates the focal point of the acting profession that is the core of the story. Instead of treating the rehearsals and filming of that movie as farce, Kore-eda lets such scenes radiate with an understanding and admiration for the craft of acting. That’s not to say that much of it isn’t humorous as indeed, Fabienne rolls her eyes at her young costar’s actorly choices here and there. But mostly, it allows Kore-eda and Deneuve the opportunity to showcase how talented Fabienne truly is, and how her approach and preparation influences such incredible outcomes in front of the camera.
And ultimately, this is where the truth of the film’s title is proven. Fabienne’s self-absorption makes her an absentee mother, but it allows her to become a superb actress. Fabienne herself says it at one point in the film, “I’d rather have been a bad friend and a bad mother and a great actress.” And Lumir, despite numerous skirmishes with her mother at her opulent estate, cannot help but watch in admiration as her mother works ceaselessly on the soundstage to add dimension and depth to her performance while in front of the camera.
Fabienne is a great actress, and indeed, so is Deneuve. Her performance is as skilled and nuanced as any of her landmark performances from films like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, REPULSION, BELLE DU JOUR, THE LAST METRO, and INDOCHINE. And in THE TRUTH, she even displays a wickedly droll wit that is rare in her career of mostly ultra-serious performances.
Binoche is also one of the world’s very finest actresses, and it’s marvelous watching her react to all around her in a scene. Deneuve gets most of the pithy quips, but how Binoche reacts to such uttering gives each moment its genuine weight. Hawke gets star billing here too, though his role is decidedly supporting as his character serves as a direct counter to Fabienne in Lumir’s life. His Hank is a struggling actor, and one who’s easily frazzled, but his heart is pure as is his unconditional love for his wife and family.
Kore-eda is not a showy director, though he slyly incorporates plenty of symbolism, foreshadowing, and Easter eggs in his framing to make THE TRUTH all the more entertaining. At times, the Japanese filmmaker’s movie, spoken in a mix of French and English, edges up to sentimentality, but Kore-eda and his cast never cross that line. Instead, this family drama remains cooler, all the more knowing, and yes, all the more French.
THE TRUTH stands as one of the year’s most exquisite films, plumbing the depths of an actor’s life and the complexity of relationships in the fallout from it. Kore-eda’s film also illuminates how we all cling to our own truthiness, whatever it takes to get us through the day, whatever it takes to remain the stars of our own stories. And in showcasing such truths, Kore-eda, Deneuve, Binoche, Hawke, et al. have made an incredibly potent and vividly human film.