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Juliette Binoche

Foreground, from left, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The Truth (La Vérité), acclaimed writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first film set outside his native Japan and not in his native language, is a fascinating study of family dysfunction that is equally heartfelt and scathing.

The film revolves around famous French actress Fabienne Dangeville (screen legend Catherine Deneuve) on the cusp of her memoir release. Her daughter, screenwriter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), arrives in Paris from the United States, and had expected to see the manuscript; she is chagrined to discover that it has already gone to print. When she does read the book, she confronts her mother with the liberties she has taken, particularly the portrayal of their history. In contrast to the idealized childhood presented in the book, the reality was distant and disconnected, a situation that has continued into adulthood. Fabienne’s answer: “My memories. My book.”

This is just the catalyst as the film doesn’t return to this initial conflict but instead focuses on their current relationship. Lumir is cornered into acting as Fabienne’s assistant as her mother navigates her current job, a low-budget science-fiction picture titled Memories of My Mother.

If it seems a bit on the nose, it is forgivable as the metaphor is much more complicated. The plot of the sci-fi film focuses on a terminally ill mother who lives in space so that she won’t succumb to her condition.  She visits her daughter, Amy, at various times in her life. While she doesn’t age, Amy does. Fabienne has been cast as the eldest of the three Amy’s.

Looming in the background is the specter of Sarah, a woman who is referenced many times, but the connection is only gradually revealed. Sarah, an actress, was both Fabienne’s friend and rival. Lumir felt closer to Sarah than to her own mother, and Sarah’s death by suicide or accident — depending on who is telling the story — impacted Lumir deeply. There are also accusations of Fabienne’s complicity in the woman’s death. The suggestion that Sarah was a superior actress is something with which Fabienne has refused to come to terms.

All of these disparate pieces come together in the person of Manon (Manon Clavel) who is playing the mother in the film. Manon is presented as a brilliant up-and-comer and the heir to Sarah’s legacy. Fabienne is resentful of the woman’s talent and mistrustful of her sincerity. 

Fabienne is a narcissist of the first order. In one of the earliest discussions, she is unaware which of her colleagues are alive or dead; when corrected, it is clear that she doesn’t really care.  She is not even capable of apologizing to Luc (Alain Libolt), her long-suffering manager, and asks Lumir to write the apology for her.  Deneuve is one of the great actors and creates a Fabienne whose monstrous ego doesn’t eclipse her insecurities. Deneuve makes her mercurial behavior not just wholly believable but strangely sympathetic. 

Binoche never allows Lumir to become an object of pity. As a child who raised herself, she takes on emotionally caring for mother with a mix of amusement and resignation. Her exasperation with her mother is tempered by understanding. Binoche is incapable of giving a performance that is anything but truthful, and the film benefits from her ability to play humor and pain simultaneously. Her growing closeness to Manon (hearkening back to her relationship with Sarah) is a both delicate and subtle.

Clémentine Grenier as daughter Charlotte strikes a nice balance between precocious and present, and is particularly delightful in her scenes with Deneuve. Clavel is ideal as Manon, revealing an understated ferocity in the Memories of My Mother scenes and depth and warmth in her off-camera moments.

The film’s men not are not so much underdeveloped as they are intentionally ciphers. Ethan Hawke plays Hank, Lumir’s husband, a second-rate television and internet actor. He is a fraction of a man who only comes alive when reflected in the women around him. Libolt’s agent is even tacit in his rebellion. Sébastien Chassagne strikes the right subservient chord as  the rather ineffectual and nameless director of Memories of My Mother.

Roger Van Hool appears briefly as Fabienne’s estranged husband, a sweet, wild-eyed figure of nominal importance in their lives. (Fabienne reported him as deceased in her book.) There is a wonderful bit of whimsy that poses the question of whether or not Fabienne has turned her ex-husband into a turtle that lives in the garden. This bit of fantasy is left shrewdly unanswered. 

The film circles around themes of loneliness, emotional abandonment, and isolation as well as the fact that memory can never be fully trusted. It takes the ideas and threads them through both the narrative and in the film-within-the film. They are neatly balanced, with the professional world alternating with the personal. The truth, in the context of this story, is not so much subjective as it is flexible. 

But, at the heart, is Deneuve’s self-absorbed Fabienne. Just when she is on the verge of connecting, she retreats, playing a wild game of emotional hide-and-seek to which only she knows the rules. “I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth.” And it is clear she never does.

Rated PG, The Truth is now streaming On Demand.