Any similarities between Catherine Deneuve and Fabienne Dangeville, the veteran movie star she plays in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film The Truth, are entirely intentional. Both women are in their seventies, have won two César awards and almost made a film with Alfred Hitchcock (Deneuve was in the running to play the wife of a spy in his unmade project The Short Night). Both are haunted by memories of another actor who died prematurely; for Fabienne, it is her friend Sarah, from whom she once stole a part, while in Deneuve’s case it is her sister, Françoise Dorleac, who perished in a car crash at the age of 25. On Fabienne’s wall is a poster for The Belles of Paris, which is close enough to Belle de Jour to be an in-joke. When we meet her, she is about to star in a science-fiction film as a woman who ages while her own mother remains young, just as Deneuve in The Hunger played a vampire who kept her looks while her lover (David Bowie) grew shrivelled and desiccated. Both women smoke prodigiously. Oh, and Deneuve’s middle name is Fabienne.
Such echoes and parallels are appropriate in a film which ponders, as Pain and Glory and Non-Fiction also did recently, the responsibilities of artists who base their work closely on real people and events. The Truth begins with the arrival at Fabienne’s home of her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), along with Lumir’s husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their child, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). The family has convened to mark the publication of Fabienne’s memoir, also called The Truth. Among the biggest surprises for Lumir as she begins reading is the discovery that her father is dead (he isn’t) and that her mother used to collect her from school (she didn’t). Fabienne stands her ground: “My book. My memories.” Though as she and several other characters later point out, memories can’t be trusted.
Lumir thinks Fabienne behaved very much like the mother in that science-fiction film, who jets off into space to arrest the ageing process (a neat metaphor for the vanity of actors) and leaves her family to face the ravages of time. “I never wanted to live on Earth,” Fabienne concedes. And she’s still touchy about her age: she insists that 70 is the new 50, warns Lumir not to refer to her as “mum” on set and sees shades of All About Eve in the way her young co-star, Manon (Manon Clavel), admires her.
The movie she’s shooting is Memories of My Mother (based on a short story by Ken Liu, though this isn’t mentioned) and the scenes from that film-within-the-film provide the most visually and tonally interesting moments here. There is a disorienting elision between reality and pretence, so that it sometimes takes a few seconds, as it did in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, to know whether the actors on set are conversing as themselves or in character.
Even once that’s been confirmed, there’s still a clinging strangeness to the scenes of Fabienne playing a daughter who is older than her mother. “Are you leaving me alone again, Mum?” she asks the fresh-faced Manon, a good half-century her junior. Another layer is added by the presence of Lumir watching the takes on a video monitor: the daughter seeing her mother as a daughter again.
The Truth is Kore-eda’s first non-Japanese film – he has been making delicate, detailed family dramas such as Still Walking, Our Little Sister and the Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, for more than 20 years – but any problems it has can’t be blamed on cultural misunderstandings so much as the material’s flimsiness and its overfamiliar allusions. There’s the rather tired fairy-tale aura surrounding Fabienne’s home, which can only be accessed through greenery that brushes against the camera like the branches of an enchanted forest; plodding around the garden is a tortoise rumoured to have once been a man who displeased Fabienne. Lumir refers to a school production of The Wizard of Oz and her father tells her how convincing she was as the Cowardly Lion: she really seemed to grasp the character’s fear. Well, that’s what you get when you live with a wicked witch.
It hardly seems worth pointing out that Fabienne also has a dog called Toto. Details such as these appear to feed into the film’s meaning without actively nourishing or enriching it. Mention is made of the prison that overlooks Fabienne’s house, and after an hour or so of the family’s indulgent bickering it is possible to wonder whether there are more urgent and original stories to be told from behind the barred windows in D-wing.
Only a jaded soul, however, would fail to find some delight in Deneuve. The Truth is nowhere near as magnificent a modern tribute to her as François Ozon’s Potiche but it is still a thrill to see her dining alone in a deserted restaurant, decked out in leopard print with Toto on her lap, or regarding her inferiors with the sleepy, seen-it-all eyes and faintly nauseated smirk of a true femme behaving badly.
“The Truth” will screen on Curzon Home Cinema from 20 March
The Truth (PG)
dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning