When a big, prestigious, internationally celebrated arthouse filmmaker, hoisted by his acclaim, gets the chance to make a “crossover” movie somewhere other than his native country (generally, though not always, the language spoken in the film will be English), it tends to seem like a great idea on paper, yet often doesn’t work out so well. Examples of this time-honored phenomenon range from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch” to Wim Wenders’ “Hammett” to Asghar Farhadi’s recent “Everybody Knows” — movies in which you can hear the voice of the filmmaker, though not nearly as vividly as you did in the films that made his crossover possible. But “The Truth,” the first movie written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”) outside his native Japan, doesn’t fall into that more-mainstream-yet-lesser trap.
“The Truth,” which Kore-eda shot with a French crew, is set in Paris, and it’s one of those dramas in which a beloved, larger-than-life movie-star diva — in this case, Catherine Deneuve — portrays a beloved, larger-than-life movie-star diva. Which isn’t to suggest that Deneuve is playing some thinly veiled version of herself, only that the movie uses her image as one of the last of the mythical French screen goddesses to impart an impish sheen of authenticity to her portrayal of Fabienne Dangeville, a legendary, César-winning French actress, now in her 70s, who approaches every moment with an I’m-still-here tenacity that’s at once heroic and steely, vibrant and borderline tyrannical. Deneuve, at 75, has never stopped working or even slowed down, yet she hasn’t had a role this delectable in years, and she gives a magnificent performance: grand, subtle, lacerating and fearless.
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She makes Fabienne a proudly narcissistic and theatrical glamour puss who has no patience for the idea that she should pretend to be anything other than the devious, self-adoring prima donna she is. In the opening scene, she’s giving an interview to kick off the publicity blitz for her new memoir (it’s called “The Truth”), and there’s a wry amusement to the fact that she can’t recall whether several of her old frenemies are dead or alive. It’s not a fading-memory joke — it’s a this-is-what-total-self-absorption-looks-like joke.
Yet Fabienne, as Deneuve plays her, is such a sly manipulator, so droll about her own royal ego, that we can’t help but feel drawn to her. Kore-eda’s dialogue is superb, suffused with the comedy of experience. (There’s a great bit in which Fabienne discusses actresses whose first and last names begin with the same letter, capped by Denueve’s priceless shrug at the mention of Brigitte Bardot.) As you watch “The Truth,” which is so spryly at home in the cosmopolitan air of its French movie-world setting, you feel as if it could have been made by the Olivier Assayas of “Summer Hours.” It’s that finely tuned.
And yet … it’s very much, in the end, a Kore-eda film. Which is to say, it works by throwing the audience a series of highly refined dramatic curveballs that don’t necessarily add up to the movie you thought you were watching.
As Fabienne releases her memoir and gets ready to act in a new picture, she’s playing host to her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter based in New York, and Lumir’s husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a mediocre TV actor who is starting to have a bit of success. They’re a bohemian showbiz couple with a lovely daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), who’s around 8, and they seem like a serene domestic unit. We learn that Hank has stopped drinking (there’s an all-too-brief reference to the troubles that led to his going into rehab), but Hawke makes him a centered and loving presence, and Binoche does the same thing for Lumir — except when it comes to her mother.
The heart of the film unfolds in Fabienne’s rustic suburban country home, where Lumir grew up, but as pretty as the setting is, the memories are far from cozy. Lumir starts reading her mother’s memoir and can’t believe what a deceptive mountain of spin it is. Fabienne writes that she dotingly picked up Lumir every day from school — when, in fact, she never once did. She also missed her big middle-school acting performance, in which Lumir played the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” Yet even confronted with these lies, Fabienne offers no apology. It’s not in her nature to admit flaws; she maintains a tone of self-justifying blitheness. “I’m an actress,” she says. “I won’t tell the naked truth,” because it’s not “interesting.” Fabienne speaks her mind to a fault, but after a while we realize that she’s never not acting. Even her outspokenness is another mask.
The relationship of Fabienne and Lumir is the core of the movie. As we register the notes of discord between them, and witness what an unreliable narrator of her own truth Fabienne is, the movie starts to look like it might resemble Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata,” in which Ingrid Bergman played a similar character (a famous concert pianist), and Liv Ullmann was her long-suffering daughter. Either way, it’s only natural to expect a story like this one to head toward an eruption of pain and heartbreak and confrontation, or to tears and hugs, or maybe to both. But that’s not the movie that Kore-eda has made. And frankly, the film he has made, for all its sophistication and pleasure, winds up being less cathartically appealing.
The movie takes periodic detours to the set of the film Fabienne is shooting, and it is — yes — a mother-daughter drama, made by a hipster director, that offers a running meta commentary on the story we’re watching. Fabienne is actually cast as the daughter; that’s because the film’s sci-fi premise is that her mother, who was sick, went off into space (where you don’t age). So in many scenes, Fabienne plays a spiritual version of her own daughter: desperate, abandoned, reaching out to the mother she loves.
At the same time, there are further interlocking motifs and metaphorical narratives: the fact that Fabienne once played a witch with magical powers (in an adaptation of a children’s book that Lumir loved), as well as the story of what happened between her and another actress, Sarah Mondavan, who was her friend, rival and a maternal figure to Lumir (and has since died). This particular backstory is at once weighted and fuzzy; we keep wanting it to reveal more than it does. And though the shooting-of-the-movie scenes are, at moments, transporting, that’s because they’re allowed to be full-on emotional in a way that the rest of the film is not. That’s the conceit; it’s all done on purpose. But it’s not fully satisfying.
“The Truth” may sound like a heavy title for a drama about a mutually conflicted mother and daughter, yet the title isn’t wrong. The film wants to be a meditation on how lies can sometimes be truths, and on how memory is, by nature, deceitful (or something). “The Truth” has a chance to connect to veteran arthouse patrons who will be drawn to the must-see factor of Deneuve’s performance, and it proves that Kore-eda, in ways we might not have expected, has a dazzlingly exportable talent. But it still left me wishing that the story he’s telling came to less high-minded terms of endearment.