By Elias Savada.
Catherine Deneuve, the graceful doyenne of French cinema, continues to amaze at 76. In Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new French film, La Vérité (The Truth) – his first in a non-native language – he has created Fabienne Dangeville as the self-centered star. It’s a Frankensteinian role that combines Deneuve’s own storied fame and life relationships with fictional slabs of egotistical lowlights and maternal misfires that the aging diva has foisted on her family over a lengthy career.
The familial foil for Fabienne’s narcissistic insecurities is her daughter, Lumir, played with equal luminosity by Juliette Binoche. The prodigal child, now a screenwriter living in San Francisco with her flailing American television actor, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and their young offspring, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), have returned to Paris to observe (somehow the word celebrate doesn’t fit) the release of Fabienne’s self-propelling and partly (mostly?) fictionalized memoir, also called The Truth. It’s anything but the reality as remembered by Lumir. The mother and daughter had managed to evade one another for long stretches of time, but Kore-eda’s story decides to focus, quickly, on the estranged tension between the women, and the dialogue does have a certain theatrical ring. The screenplay originated as a play script the filmmaker wrote in 2003, “about a night in the dressing room of a theatre actress coming to the end of her career.” When transferring that idea to a scenario, he got input from both actresses, so they were uncredited collaborators.
The award-winning Kore-eda has exchanged much of the complex naturalist approach that he exhibited in Shoplifters (2018) – his most acclaimed work that won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was a runner-up in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 91st Academy Awards, losing to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma – for a broader flowing traditional drama. He arms his actors with sarcastic dialogue, constant criticism (Fabienne’s tea is too lukewarm or too hot), memory lapses (thinking several of her peers have died), and a tragic, unseen McGuffin character named Sarah who is the center of many heated, condescending discussions. Most of the many casually tossed caustic barbs are aimed by mom at her daughter.
As the family gathers in Fabienne’s large rustic house, the matriarch has embarked on a supporting role in a film based on (associate producer and Hugo Award-winning author) Ken Liu’s short story Memories of My Mother. The inner film stars a terminally ill young mother (Manon Clavel) who went to live in space (where she doesn’t age) to save her life. She visits her daughter every seven years. Fabienne plays the now-elderly daughter of the still-young mother. This interconnected subplot explores – too briefly, but at least once very powerfully – the meta detail ever further, when you realize that Fabienne is playing her perceived version of Lumir in the film-within-a-film. While The Truth doesn’t fall into the realm of self-referential art (that might have made a better story concept), it does try to weave parallels between the two fictional families.
Fabienne is an equal opportunity betrayer for others in her life, whether it’s her ex-husband (Roger Van Hool) or her longtime assistant (Alain Libolt). The former arrives uninvited, stays a bit, then disappears, while the latter quits (briefly) in a huff because he’s totally left out of her memoir.
Despite working with a French crew, Kore-eda seems to have found a common cinematic language that clears away any culturally awkward moments that might have found their way into his latest examination of the human condition.
A few thoughts on Ethan Hawke, who still breathes the same casual air he found in Before Sunrise (1995) and its two sequels. Such gently, pleasurable excursions. Hawke has a terrific ability to make his dialogue seem improvised and real. In The Truth he plays a doting husband, loving father, and a recovering alcoholic who finds his mocking mother-in-law seemingly set on sending him back to rehab. Grenier, as the granddaughter, is a marvelous discovery; this is her first film.
The back-and-forth mother-daughter story is a must-see for Deneuve (and Binoche) fans, maybe not so much for Kore-eda’s arthouse followers. There’s pain played heavy, agony performed light, and an abundance of verbal pyrotechnics. Ideal for a quality art film, the ensemble shines.
The film is available on numerous video-on-demand platforms listed at https://www.thetruth.movie/watch-at-home/.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).