The drama in movies by Hirokazu Kore-eda often takes place on the canvas of his characters’ faces. That said, I doubt he’s worked with canvases as legendary as the ones in his latest film, “The Truth.” Catherine Deneuve carries an entire history of French cinema in her features. Juliette Binoche is among Deneuve’s most distinctive, adventurous heirs. They make a visually unlikely mother-daughter pairing, but that mismatch only strengthens the battle of wills at the movie’s center.
Kore-eda’s last movie was “Shoplifters,” the Cannes prizewinner about a family of grifters coalescing around a rescued little girl. “The Truth,” currently available on demand, is the director’s first project outside his native Japan, but his skill at portraying fractious family dynamics — the simmering feuds, the unexpected thaws — translates with ease. Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a famous French film star not unlike the actress herself but with a (presumably) more monstrous ego. Fabienne is on the verge of publishing her memoirs — titled “La Verité,” or “The Truth” — when her estranged daughter Lumir (Binoche), a screenwriter in Los Angeles, arrives with husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) in tow.
Fabienne is a diva and not in a pleasant way, and as the sarcasm and slights pile up, you understand why the daughter has moved very far away and also why she wants a look at that memoir. For good reason: The Fabienne in its pages is a doting and committed mother so far from Lumir’s memories as to prompt angry laughter. Responds the star, “I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth.”
Naturalistic in style and steady in pace, “The Truth” elegantly fills in the backstory of these women’s lives while setting up a complex but poetic hall of mirrors. Fabienne’s current project is a sci-fi film in which she plays the daughter of a woman who lives in outer space and hasn’t aged over the course of the daughter’s long life. Suddenly the diva finds herself cast as the aggrieved — an older woman venting a lifetime of disappointment to a younger mother who only visits every seven years. With Lumir watching from behind the camera and Manon (Manon Clavel), the actress cast as the mother, gracefully commanding the scenes, Fabienne finds her composure cracking and a disoriented panic showing through.
It doesn’t help that Manon strongly resembles a long-dead friend and rival of Fabienne’s, an acclaimed actress who treated the young Lumir more like a daughter than her mother did. All these emotional crosscurrents are choreographed with wit and skill by a filmmaker who, making his 18th feature in three decades, has become a master at the drama of sentimental education.
The men in the movie and in these women’s lives are not exactly secondary but they’re not the main course. They tend to be reliably unreliable — or vice versa — and include Lumir’s father (Roger Van Hool), long divorced but genially hanging around the fringes; Fabienne’s current partner (Christian Crahay), who cooks her meals and shares her bed; and Hawke’s Hank, a feckless struggling actor and doting dad who Lumir affectionately acknowledges is better in the sack than on a stage. At other times, “The Truth” simply follows little Charlotte around the grandmother’s mysterious mansion, soaking up its scents and secrets.
The thing about being an actor is that you have to rely on others to provide the words. Perhaps that’s why the daughter has become a writer; perhaps that’s why Fabienne prevails on Lumir to write an apology the mother can deliver to a longtime assistant (Alain Libolt) whom she has insulted once too often. The intergenerational power struggle softens into a spiky collaboration and then something more hard-won. Who writes the truth of any family? As many authors as there are family members, and often with opposing narratives. Using compassion and the slightest touch of syrup, Kore-eda brings his characters to a place where they realize with shock that they’re finally on the same page.
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Manon Clavel, Clémentine Grenier. Available on cable systems and streaming platforms. In French and English, with subtitles. 106 minutes. PG (thematic and suggestive elements, smoking, brief language)