Review: ‘The Truth,’ starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alain Libolt, Juliette Binoche, Christian Crahay, Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Clémentine Grenier in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Truth”

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “The Truth” features a nearly all-white cast (with some Asians briefly shown as extras) representing the upper-class/wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A screenwriter has a troubled relationship with her famous actress mother and confronts some of these issues while visiting her mother in Paris.

Culture Audience: “The Truth” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally realistic arthouse cinema.

Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche in “The Truth” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

When filmmakers do a story about a vain and spoiled famous actress who has a difficult love/hate relationship with a daughter living in her shadow, the results are usually comedy (such as 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge) or camp (such as 1981’s “Mommie Dearest”). “The Truth” is neither. Instead, this well-acted, well-written movie is a drama that authentically shows the dynamics and tensions of a family affected by fame, career ambitions and public image.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”) wrote and directed “The Truth,” which is his first movie filmed outside of Japan. The story is essentially an emotional tug of war between legendary actress Fabienne Dangeville (played by Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (played by Juliette Binoche), as they come to terms with their relationship and how it was affected by Fabienne’s actress rival Sarah Mondavan, who died 40 years earlier.

Lumir lives in New York City with her American actor husband Hank (played by Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. All three of them go to Paris to visit with Fabienne, who has recently released her memoir, which is called “The Truth.” In addition to promoting the book, Fabienne is busy filming a new movie.

Lumir has ostensibly come to Paris to celebrate the release of the book, which is a bestseller in France, but it’s clear that Lumir is also there to possibly finished some unsettled business with her mother. One of the first things that Lumir does when she sees her mother again is confront Fabienne about not sending her the book’s manuscript before it was published.

Lumir reminds Fabienne that Fabienne had promised that Lumir would be the first person to read the manuscript. However, Fabienne insists that she did sent the manuscript to Lumir, and Fabienne claims to have no idea why Lumir never received it.

And it seems as if Fabienne has a version of the truth that contrasts with her daughter’s. In the memoir, Fabienne talks about picking up Lumir from school when Lumir was a child. However, Lumir says her mother never did any such thing because Fabienne was always too busy. “My memories, my book,” Fabienne responds dismissively.

During the course of the movie, it becomes clear that a lot of this mother-daughter tension has to do with unresolved issues that both women have over Sarah, who is never seen in this movie. At one time, Sarah’s and Fabienne’s acting careers were thriving and were approximately on the same level. But Fabienne ended up getting major fame and accolades that eclipsed Sarah, who died in a drowning that was officially ruled an accident.

Lumir has a lot of resentment toward her mother over Sarah’s death because while Fabienne was caught up in her career, she often neglected Lumir as a child, while Sarah was a devoted mother figure to Lumir. Meanwhile, Fabienne and Sarah had been competing for the same role in a movie, and the role was presumed to be going to Sarah.

However, Fabienne (by her own admission) slept with the director and got the role instead. Fabienne won a César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for the role, and her relationship with Sarah was never the same again. It’s implied, but not stated outright, that Sarah’s death might have been a suicide, not an accident, because she was devastated by Fabienne’s betrayal. Lumir is also upset with Fabienne because Fabienne never even mentioned Sarah in Fabienne’s memoir.

The movie that Fabienne is working on during Lumir’s visit is a sci-fi drama called “Memories of My Mother.” In the film, a terminally ill woman goes to outer space to try and extend her life, and she leaves her teenage daughter behind on Earth.  When the woman comes back to Earth after seven years of being away, she has barely aged, while she finds out that her teenage daughter is now an old woman. Fabienne plays the old woman, while an up-and-coming actress named Manon (played by Manon Clavel) has the role of the mother who’s barely aged.

Fabienne’s long-suffering personal assistant/butler Luc (Alain Libolt) tells Lumir that the main reason why Fabienne wanted to do the movie is because Manon has the starring role and because the media and public have been constantly comparing Manon to Sarah. Not only has Manon been dubbed the “second coming of Sarah Mondavan,” but her speaking voice sounds remarkably like Sarah’s.

Luc invites Lumir and her family to Epinay Studios, where the movie is being filmed. Lumir can’t help but be intrigued, so she readily accepts the invitation. The “movie within a movie” concept is masterfully delivered here to show how life can imitate art and art can imitate life. (Fabienne’s fear of aging and Fabienne being distant for years from her daughter are obvious parallels to the story in “Memories of My Mother.”) While watching her mother on this film set, Lumir observes firsthand how much Fabienne is still set in her ways and is using the movie to work out some issues that Fabienne had with Sarah.

Fabienne is every inch the self-centered diva, but she also has a very charming side that draws people to her and keeps people fascinated by her. It’s one of the reasons why Luc has been working for her for more than 40 years, but even his steadfast loyalty is tested during the course of the movie. Luc knows the history of how Fabienne and Lumir’s relationship was affected by their respective relationships with Sarah.

Although the supporting actors in “The Truth” do a very good job with their roles, this movie is really a showcase for Deneuve and Binoche. Deneuve has the more complicated, less transparent role, and she plays it to the hilt without being melodramatic. Binoche gives a quivery-mouth, teary-eyed vulnerability to Lumir, but she also shows that Lumir is no pushover when she expresses how she feels and stands up to her mother’s attempted manipulations.

Charlotte is a typical adorable kid, while Hank is mainly there as a supportive husband. He respects his wife’s wishes to stay out of the conflict between Fabienne and Lumir. In the beginning of the story, Fabienne (who has not seen Frank since his and Lumir’s wedding) seems to show that she doesn’t have much respect for Frank, but she eventually warms up to him when she sees that he’s not going to criticize her in the way that Lumir is intent on doing.

When Frank, Lumir and Charlotte first arrive at Fabienne’s home, she has just finished being interviewed by a print journalist. When the journalist observes that she has visitors at her door, Fabienne says, “It’s nothing. It’s my daughter and her little family.” And when she talks about Frank, she says calling him an “actor” is “saying a lot.”

It turns out that Frank really is a working actor in movies, but he’s not an actor who’s had a leading role yet. He’s taken a vow not to drink alcohol until he gets a leading role, but that vow is quickly broken during the visit with Fabienne. It’s not too much of a surprise, since a lot of people would want to get drunk too if they had to be around a difficult mother-in-law like Fabienne.

Much like celebrities in real life who expect the world to revolve around them, the world of “The Truth” also revolves around Fabienne. Viewers of the movie don’t find out much about Lumir and Frank, other than that one of the reasons why Lumir moved to New York was to get away from her mother. But viewers find out a lot of Fabienne.

Fabienne has an enormous fear of being perceived as a has-been. She’s very competitive with other actresses. (And there’s a somewhat meta moment with Deneuve when Bridget Bardot’s name is mentioned in one scene.) She loves dogs and hates cats. She has an old turtle in her backyard garden that she’s named Pierre, after her ex-husband (Lumir), whom she kicked out of her life when she got tired of him.

Fabienne also lied in her memoir by saying that Pierre is dead. Pierre (played by Roger Van Hool) doesn’t find out that Fabienne has literally written him off as dead until he shows up for a surprise visit while Lumir and her family are at Fabienne’s house. Pierre is a laid-back, scruffy type who never really had big career ambitions (he used to work in the film business as an assistant), and he’s obviously faded into reclusive obscurity. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that Fabienne has told the world that he’s dead.

Although he’s of retirement age, Pierre has been vague about how he’s able to make money. And in one of the more amusing scenes in the film, when Pierre first meets Hank, he mistakenly assumes that Hank is a much-younger lover of Fabienne’s. Fabienne does have a lover, but he’s close to her age. His name is Jacques (played by Christian Crahay), and he happens to be Fabienne’s live-in chef, who’s more than happy to be subservient to her in every way.

Fabienne is clearly someone who is accustomed to using men to get what she wants. In one scene in the movie, she even tells Lumir that she’s never apologized to a man. And it’s also obvious that Fabienne is used to treating other women as rivals, since Fabienne wants to be the queen bee at all times. But that selfishness has come at a price.

A recurring symbolism in the movie is of females brushing each other’s hair. Fabienne lets her granddaughter Charlotte brush her hair, and she comments somewhat sadly that Lumir would never let Fabienne brush Lumir’s hair. Later in the story, it’s revealed that Sarah would often brush Lumir’s hair. The brushing of hair is obviously a metaphor for mutual trust and admiration.

The ending of “The Truth” is a little formulaic, but the head games and verbal sparring between mother and daughter are perfectly matched to this movie. It’s not a movie that’s going to change the world, but it’s one that will make people think about the emotional toll that comes from holding grudges against family members and whether or not refusing to forgive is worth the cost.

IFC Films released “The Truth” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on July 3, 2020. The movie was already released in France and in Japan in 2019.