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Fabienne is justifying the numerous fabrications and omissions in her new memoir, but she could also be talking about her approach to acting—or to life itself. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Truth” toys with the significance, definition, and symbolism of its title. If the naked truth is indeed dull, does dressing it up make it any less valid? Twice in this film, characters express sentiment to someone they care for using words written by someone else, and the recipients buy it despite one of them knowing the origin of the words. Perhaps getting through life requires a suspension of disbelief as large as the one needed to buy the plot of the science fiction film-within-a-film in which Fabienne is co-starring.
That film, “Memories of My Mother” tells the story of a mother who has only two years to live, so she decides to live in outer space because “nobody grows old out there.” She makes occasional visits to see her daughter, who keeps getting older while her mother stays the same age. Eventually, the daughter is a 73 years old embodied by Fabienne. The lead actress is Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel), an up-and-coming actress who looks like the late actress Sarah Mondavan, whose spirit haunts “The Truth” through a slew of Fabienne’s memories, all of which she has left out of her memoir. “It’s not going to be a good film,” Fabienne says of Manon’s movie. But “Memories” is going to be a useful plot device for Kore-eda.
Plot device is not exactly accurate; unlike Kore-eda’s acclaimed last feature “Shoplifters,” “The Truth” doesn’t have very much of a plot. What little there is serves as a clothesline for its two excellent leads to hang their performances out to dry. This very entertaining movie is all about its women, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters, actresses and mentors and best friends whose relationship has gone downhill for reasons about to be unearthed. Because it’s about women, “The Truth” could derisively be described as a soap opera, but as someone who grew up watching my “stories,” I see nothing wrong with that genre. In fact, this kind of movie is my jam—divas commanding the screen while, to quote Celeste Holm in “All About Eve,” “the men will do as they’re told.”
Representing those obedient (and less interesting) men is Ethan Hawke, who plays Lumir’s actor husband, Hank. Unlike Fabienne, he’s not very good (“he’s a better lover than actor,” Lumir tells her mother) and he’s pretty much tasked with what would be the girlfriend role in this picture. Hell, he even works on an internet soap opera, one watched by Jacques (Christian Crahay) and Papy Pierre (Roger Van Hool), the other men in Fabienne’s house. (They recap the plot with giddy delight, like a bunch of aunties sitting down for tea.) Hawke smartly plays Hank as the guy caught in the middle between mother and daughter, eager to cede the spotlight to their battles. But he’s very good at listening and silently reacting—he doesn’t understand French yet plays an entire scene with Fabienne where he seems to be getting what she’s talking about—and he has a great moment of drunkenness where it’s revealed that he hasn’t been truthful about why he originally gave up booze. In vino veritas, as the saying goes.
Meanwhile, Lumir continues to take issue with her mother’s memoir, going so far as to apply Post-It notes to the pages where the truth doesn’t appear. With this book, Fabienne has encroached on Lumir’s territory; unable to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Lumir has become a successful writer. Her only acting appearance was a grade school performance as the Cowardly Lion in a play about that lying-ass man, The Wizard of Oz. Though the two women have a strained relationship, it’s never acrimonious nor does it ever devolve into a screaming match, even when Lumir throws her mother’s indiscretions regarding Sarah at her. Both Binoche and Deneuve are masters of stillness and stoicism and they play their expertise off each other with chess-like strategy.
Lumir’s relationship with her own daughter, Charlotte (a very good Clémentine Grenier) is far less strained, as are Fabienne’s grandmotherly moments with her. Charlotte inquires if her grandmother is a witch like the one she played in a film adaptation of Lumir’s favorite childhood book. Fabienne mentions that the turtle in the yard is really Lumir’s father and her ex-husband, Pierre. Sure enough, when a disheveled Pierre appears unexpectedly at Fabienne’s doorstep, the turtle disappears from the yard. The movie is noncommittal about this particular “truth.”
But back to “Memories of My Mother.” Kore-eda wants us to focus on acting, both as a craft and as a means to an end. Are actors better at delivering the truth, even if it’s merely a by-product of their performance, or especially if they’re using their own experiences to influence their roles? In a quietly brutal scene, a real moment of reconciliation between Lumir and Fabienne is twisted to leave us unsure if what we were seeing is truly honest or if Fabienne were looking for inspiration for her role as Manon’s daughter. Several times in “The Truth,” we see a fake poster of Fabienne in a film called “The Belle of Paris,” which is clearly meant to evoke Deneuve’s “Belle du Jour,” a movie where a woman plays a role as a means of exploring her own fantasies in a quest for sexual truth. We’re goaded into focusing on Fabienne the person and Fabienne the actress to see if there’s any distinction.
Deneuve's performance coyly avoids a definitive answer. Another repeated motif is a close-up of Fabienne in the back of a car en route to the studio. Fabienne is always thinking at the beginning of these shots, and before she speaks, Deneuve allows a sense of mischief to play across her face without moving it at all. You can only wonder what she’s thinking about, but my God, whatever it is, it must be delicious. Kore-eda loves the faces of his lead actresses (it’s hard not to), even putting them in a “Persona”-like formation during the aforementioned reconciliation scene. Binoche is very good here, but this is definitely Deneuve’s show.
“But is it the truth or isn’t it?” asks Charlotte after employing a bit of performance art scripted by her mother for Fabienne’s benefit. We’re not really sure, but this scene has a mirror image earlier when Fabienne asks her lover, Jacques “am I washed up as an actress” then stops him by saying “no, don’t answer, you might say the truth.” Judging by her immediate reaction, I’ll bet that Jacques was about to lay a bit of that naked truth on her, the kind she never traffics in. Maybe the naked truth is uninteresting because it’s too real.
Now available in select theaters, digital and cable VOD.
Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne Dangeville
Juliette Binoche as Lumir
Ethan Hawke as Hank
Clementine Grenier as Charlotte
Manon Clavel as Manon
Alain Libolt as Luc