The title is a deadpan challenge, and it is up to us to decide where exactly this movie and its characters live in the disputed territory around truth, untruth, near-truth: the comforting fiction that we all create around what we remember of our lives. This is the first non-Japanese-language film from auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda (Palme d’Or winner at Cannes in 2018 for his film Shoplifters) and he has come to France for a very elegant and insouciant family drama set in Paris, which he has directed from his own script, translated from his original into French by Léa le Dimna.
Catherine Deneuve gives a seductive and self-aware performance as Fabienne Dangeville, a creamily well-preserved movie star in her mid-70s who is a legendary figure in her native land – opinionated, vain, imperious with a haughty vagueness about which of her contemporary acting rivals are dead and which alive. (It hardly matters to her.) There is a great scene in which Fabienne whimsically proclaims that all France’s great female stars have surnames which begin with the same letter as their first names: Danielle Darrieux, Simone Signoret, Anouk Aimée – and it is a joy to watch Deneueve’s subtle wince or moue of suppressed disgust when someone adds: “Brigitte Bardot”. (No one dares point out that her own initials don’t match.)
It is very stylish, amusing work from Deneuve who comes as close to really loosening up as she is ever going to get, and there is, incidentally, an entertaining, brief shot of her walking her dog in Paris that Kore-eda repeats in full as an out-take over the closing credits.
Fabienne has just published her memoirs, outrageously entitled La Vérité, or The Truth, and, to mark this occasion, her screenwriter daughter Lumir (played by Juliette Binoche) has come from New York, bringing along her American husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a failing TV actor, and their young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). Instantly, these memoirs cause uproar: her long-suffering assistant Luc (Alain Libolt) quits, because she hasn’t mentioned him at all, and Lumir is furious because Fabienne has invented ridiculous anecdotes about the loving mamma picking her up from school – when of course she was always away filming.
Yet Lumir’s attitude to her mother and to their own troubled mother-daughter relationship changes subtly, and mysteriously, because Fabienne has invited her to come and watch the new movie that she is shooting, a sci-fi fantasy entitled Memories of My Mother, about a young woman in the future with a terminal disease who is able to use time travel to visit her young daughter at various ages; Fabienne is to play this daughter as an old woman. (It is based on a story by sci-fi author Ken Liu, and it has, in the real world, been adapted as a short film called Beautiful Dreamer, by commercials director David Gaddie.)
It is intriguing to wonder if Kore-eda himself considered making his own version of Memories of My Mother, maybe in French, maybe with the same cast envisaged here – but then realised what a shame it would be to waste Deneuve in such a small part. In any case, this enigmatic story within a story has an echo with at least one part of Kore-eda’s previous work: his cult docu-essay fantasy After Life from 1999, which imagined a future in which people are allowed to choose the most ecstatic moment of their lives in which to spend eternity.
The Truth starts as a droll tale but then morphs into something else, something stranger and more elusive, something with a hint of fairytale magic realism, which plays with the interconnection between cinema and reality: Fabienne is continually reproached with her attitude to a certain contemporary whose lost career runs alongside Fabienne’s own life in a sort of ghost parallel. Kore-eda might have had in mind at some subconscious level an inversion of the case of Deneuve’s late sister Françoise Dorléac (although the analogy is in any case hardly exact).
As for Binoche’s Lumir, the topsy-turvy spectacle of her mother appearing in a role much older than her screen mother affects her strangely, and she begins to see how she might use her own daughter in a dramatic ploy to rethink their relationship, and re-establish her own power within it. It’s a startling, even shocking piece of imposture. This movie is an absorbing serio-comic flourish.
• The Truth is released in the UK on 20 March and will be available on the Curzon Home Cinema streaming platform.