Screen Legends Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche Illuminate the Silent Family Feuds of ‘The Truth’
How much of life is purely honest and how much of it is an act? “The Truth” asks these and other questions. But before getting into the finer details of the story, it must be said that the great treat which should draw you in is the duo of Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. To see these two titans of French cinema on screen together, conveying resentments, strengths and sincerity is almost a master class in their craft.
Deneuve is Fabienne Dangeville, a French movie star who is only considered past her prime because of ageism. Graceful and catty, Fabienne would never dare describe her work as merely acting. It is a serious art form only the chosen few can do well. As she begins shooting a supporting role in a new movie, Fabienne is visited by her daughter Lumir (Binoche) and husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) with their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). The occasion is that Fabienne has just published her memoirs. But once Lumir starts giving them a read it’s obvious the veteran actor would rather put on a façade even in her memories. Happiness is put where there was none, even Fabienne’s loyal butler is left out. Lumir is also unsettled by the way Fabienne has never made peace with the memory of her own deceased sister Sarah, who was admired for her acting talent. Mother and daughter prepare for a much-needed opening up of their own memories, hidden emotions and lingering bond.
“The Truth” marks a return not only for its stars but for director Hirokazu Koreeda, who gained wide prominence in 2018 after winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for “Shoplifters.” That was also a film about a family retaining many secrets. Set in the lower class areas of Tokyo, it followed a clan of outsiders who survive by skirting the law while walking around with invented stories about who they are. While that movie was grittier, “The Truth” is Koreeda more elegantly exploring a similar theme of bonds, and all the miniature scars that come with them. His cinematographic style remains grainy and hand-held, but with a look more reminiscent of the avant-garde cinema of Olivier Assayas. Cinematographer Eric Gautier’s most notable work has been in the great outdoors with credits like “Into the Wild” and “The Motorcycle Diaries,” but for Koreeda here brings warm tones to a story mostly set in interiors.
Those interiors are like a stage for a duel of personalities. It’s not that “The Truth” gets overly melodramatic, instead the screenplay by Koreeda, based on a short story by Ken Liu, is about how family histories shape people in particular ways. Lumir seems to have kept silent many of her resentments towards Fabienne but the memoirs are the ultimate trigger to make it all boil over. Fabienne is not necessarily a villain. She just has a large ego formed by success and a fierce belief in her talent. During dinner Hank shares about the TV show he acts in and Fabienne scoffs in French that it’s not real acting. For her it is not a job but a life, a craft as demanding as playing the violin. Lumir feels she could have done it, but her mother’s blunt observations about anything most likely inspired pure discouragement. Fabienne is imagined with enough complexity. She can not seem to comprehend the irony of her devotion to the invention of acting with her expectations that everyone deals with cruel honesty. She will issue silent darts at Lumir and Hank, but prefers to write a memoir that reads more like a novel. Cruel attitudes sometimes hide insecurities and Fabienne feels her age when she goes on set to play opposite Manon (Manon Clavel), who certainly reminds the veteran actor of younger days with her clumsy adoration, saying aloud that she feels the pressure of being called the next big thing by the press. On set Fabienne uses what clout she still has to talk to the younger director as if he were some intern.
Setting this as a drama about a mother and daughter coming to terms with each other has given Koreeda the perfect scenario to bring together Deneuve and Binoche. These are two legends of the French screen who have worked the greats. Deneuve was once the muse of Luis Bunuel (“Belle de Jour”) and Roman Polanski (“Repulsion”), Binoche has left her mark in masterpieces like “Blue” and “The English Patient.” They are the real story of this film as the two spar like real family members who have studied and observed each other for years. Deneuve has mastered her own craft so well, that she can sit still and with one stare or roll of the eyes say everything we need to know about Fabienne. Binoche does the same, but demonstrates the sadness and insecurity of someone who always felt their parent’s shadow was too heavy.
“The Truth” is not all somber and heartbreak. It is a wise and reflective movie. There’s not a sense of hate, including from Fabienne’s ex, Pierre, played by French screen veteran Roger Van Hool, who once starred with Deneuve in 1968’s “La chamade.” He is lively, gets along with Fabienne’s new husband, pours wine and merely accepts life as it flows. In a sense that is the lesson Fabienne and Lumir must eventually learn, that life is continuing and there is little sense in sustaining resentments based on situations long gone. Besides, Fabienne is such a professional at masks Lumir does not always realize the truth. She has kept an old grudge over Fabienne not going to her childhood performance in a “Wizard of Oz” play, but Fabienne reveals that she was indeed there and felt very proud.
Like with “Shoplifters,” Koreeda delivers a film where the plot is the very personalities of its protagonists. Fabienne may be a respected veteran actor, Lumir might be the daughter of a movie star, but their squabbles are inherent to any family. What lures us in further is how two members of the family of great cinema are the ones bringing this story to life. Watch the film because it is so well directed, watch it because its characters feel like real people, but above all, watch it because there’s always something special about witnessing two masters weave their magic together.
“The Truth” is available July 3 on VOD.