Catherine Deneuve plays a famous actress in conflict with her daughter, played by Juliette Binoche, in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film made outside of Japan.
Over the past 25 years, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has created a unique body of work, characterized by a gentle and humane outlook on life, often featuring stories about children and families. He’s never aimed for big commercial popularity, but his films have gradually become fairly popular anyway: his observant, contemplative style a perfect match for quiet dramas and comedies about everyday people and their life challenges. Now, after breaking through to international audiences, he’s surprised everyone by going to France to make a French film with three big name actors. And for the first time, instead of a film about ordinary people, he’s telling a story of the rich and famous. It’s called La Vérité, or as it’s being advertised in English, The Truth.
Juliette Binoche plays Lumir, a screenwriter living in New York, with her husband Hank, an actor played by Ethan Hawke. With their seven-year-old daughter, they travel to France to visit Lumir’s mother, a famous actress named Fabienne, played by Catherine Deneuve, on the publication of the older woman’s memoir. They’ve supposedly come to celebrate, but Lumir is angry about her mother’s book. There are large sections of her life that she knows that Fabienne has left out, and worse, there are things in there that are completely made up. So the daughter is gearing up to confront the mother.
Now, as good as Binoche and Hawke are in this movie, it’s really a showcase for Deneuve, now the grande dame of French actresses, to play a kind of extreme parody of herself. Fabienne is an egotist who dominates everyone around her; a monster of imperious selfishness who is used to getting her own way in everything. Deneuve attacks the role with gusto, and in the process Kore-eda explores the tension between the role-playing that is an essential part of an actor’s personality, and the truth (often uncomfortable) that this personality seeks to hide.
Fabienne has taken a supporting role in a sort of sci-fi time travel type film in which she plays the aging daughter of a woman who stays eternally young. Kore-eda’s humorous vantage point on the intricacies of filmmaking enrich the scenes in which Deneuve’s character is called upon to act in ways contrary to her real persona. Meanwhile, she has alienated her long-time assistant by not mentioning him in her book, and she’s portrayed herself in the book as a loving mother to Lumir when in fact she was neglectful.
With anyone else but Catherine Deneuve, this story might seem like soap opera, but she projects a stately aloof sort of dignity from which she drops little bombshells of caustic wit, and she’s every bit the old-fashioned movie star of yesteryear. In contrast, Binoche is like a child of the 1960s, mixing a chaotic sense of rebellion with vulnerable self-consciousness. The contrast presents us with a portrait of two generations of French acting.
There’s really not much plot going on here; everything is conveyed by the characters’ dialogue and casual interchanges. Even when things get tense, the opposing players are under control. Ethan Hawke is charming in his attempts to mediate comflict that end up causing problems instead of solving them. Juliette Binoche has a vivid presence while conceding the spotlight to Deneuve. And there are a half-dozen excellent supporting actors helping to bring the scenes to life. In the end, and in accord with the film’s title, we are forced to ask, What is the truth, after all? Kore-eda displays his gentle humor once again in bringing people uneasily together, acknowledging the bonds of love despite everything, and The Truth leaves us with a satisfying aftertaste, like fine wine.