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Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke
Writer/Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
I usually don’t have much patience for films about how hard it is to be a movie star — I hear Starbucks is hiring — but there’s no denying the thrill of seeing the great Catherine Deneuve as a fading screen goddess coming to terms with movie mortality.
The French film legend plays Fabienne Dangeville, a bygone screen siren who has written her memoirs. It’s a selective account at best that scrupulously makes her look good at the expense of just about everyone she’s ever known — and that includes her long-suffering daughter Lumir, played by another uncontested member of French film royalty, Juliette Binoche.
Lumir lives in America — ostensibly to facilitate her screenwriting career but clearly to also keep an ocean between her and her mère. But now she has come roaring across the Atlantic to Paris in order to have a showdown over the book, which sugarcoats Lumir’s miserable childhood at the whims of a career-obsessed mother.
To make matters worse, Fabienne is currently filming a cheesy sci-fi flick in which she plays the elderly daughter of a beautiful young mother who never grows old — just the sort of role that reminds her (and her fans) of just how far she is past her sex symbol prime.
This is the kind of material you’ll often find young directors tackling to entice some past-their-prime actor to emerge from semi-retirement and pull out that tedious “Getting Old Sucks but I’ll Make the Most of It” routine. But The Truth is from the skilled hand of Hirokazu Koreeda, whose Oscar-nominated Shoplifters was one of the most sensitively realized films of 2019. Koreeda’s talent for treading the fine line between sentiment and mawkishness is on full display here: Deneuve’s Fabienne, flinty-eyed in the face of aging, never plays for our sympathy; in fact at times she seems ready to throw us out the door along with everyone else who’s ever cared about her. And as the daughter who partly wants to reconcile with her mother and partly wants to leave her stewing in her own soufflé, Binoche matches each eruption of self-centered bitterness with a dose of off-handed remedial dismissal.
That’s a lot of family drama, and it could become a bit overwhelming if not for the welcome presence of Ethan Hawke as Lumir’s good-natured husband, Hank. Even when the mother-daughter tempest is raging at Category 5, Hank keeps an even, bemused keel — largely because he doesn’t speak a word of French.
It all builds up to the filming of a climactic scene in Fabienne’s movie-within-a-movie, in which her character must offer an emotional, self-revelatory speech to her screen mother. Until this point, we’ve been suspecting that Deneuve, one of the great screen divas, might be slumming her way through The Truth, a film that has asked to this point only that she channel the fragile emotional state of a 76-year-old former sex siren.
But she proves otherwise in this one remarkable scene, offering a breathtaking master class in conveying a script’s text, subtext, and subliminal text as Fabienne suddenly comes to realize the truth that can reside in even the most pedestrian words.
After 63 years in the movies, she knows what she’s doing.
Featured image: Scene from The Truth (courtesy IFC Films)