For as long as there has been theater, there’s been the trope of the prima donna actress. When done best, it either exaggerates the behavior to comic degree (see Dianne Weist in “Bullets Over Broadway”) or makes efforts to take their concerns seriously (see Juliette Binoche in “Clouds of Sils Maria”). As he showed in the Oscar-nominated film “Shoplifters,” director Hirokuza Kore-eda has boundless empathy. It’s this earnest fascination with people and their unique relationships that makes his movies so engrossing. With “The Truth,” Kore-eda moves from a family of shoplifters to the fractured familial relationships revolving around a grande dame French actress.
Catherine Deneuve feels right at home as Fabienne, a two-time César-winning actress contending with this new phase of her career. To relive her glory days, Fabienne has written a memoir all about her many roles, husbands, friends and daughter. This prompts a visit from said daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a successful writer. She brings her American TV actor husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and precocious daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), along for the ride. As Fabienne learns how to play a supporting rather than leading role on her latest film, she also finds she’s been treating her family as an audience, rather than co-stars.
The movie belongs to Catherine Deneuve. Kore-eda designs the film this way and Deneuve delivers. Her portrait of Fabienne, an aging star who’s never been able to “share the screen,” acts as the movie’s pulse and life blood. Initially it feels fantastic to watch Deneuve throw shade at Binoche, show disdain for Hawke and generally emote in every direction. As a subject though, Fabienne lacks the specificity that could make this family drama pop. The drama Fabienne brings kick starts every scene. Yet, the film never invests enough in her growth or the other characters to make this a compelling role for a talent like hers.
While Deneuve gets to sink her teeth into the role of Fabienne, Binoche gets no further direction than “look forlorn into the middle distance.” As Fabienne’s daughter, Lumir, Binoche gets tasked with delivering exposition on how fractured her relationship is with her mother. It’s wonderful to see two great performers share the screen together, but the writing tips everything in Deneuve’s favor. Since the film never develops Lumir’s character enough, their mother-daughter relationship never feels fully lived in. Fabienne’s only love appears to be film sets. When home, Deneuve develops much better chemistry with Lumir’s daughter, Charlotte.
“The Truth” marks Kore-eda’s first film outside of his native language. Perhaps this explains a bit of the remove between Kore-eda and his characters. He appears to have admiration and fascination for Fabienne. Yet, little else in the film seems to interest him. Watching it, one feels like Ethan Hawke’s character, who doesn’t speak French. He only picks up half the stories, and the half he does understand usually involves jokes about his acting ability. The texture and warmth that made “Shoplifters” so welcome is absent here. We’ve seen squabbles of the rich and high maintenance dramatized with more specificity and care. “The Truth” merely exists to give Catherine Denueve a runway to ACT, in all caps.