With his latest film “The Truth,” Hirokazu Kore-eda — a master of carefully churning family narratives, last witnessed in the Palme d’Or-winning 2017 movie “Shoplifters” — detours from his well-mined world of Japanese domesticity for a story set in the cloistered elegance of a French movie star’s Parisian enclave, and yet it’s as if he never left home. In the best way, of course.
Filmmakers whose truest gifts translate no matter the language or trappings are special travelers indeed. And in the writer-director’s incisive, winning tale of a battle of will and wit between Catherine Deneuve‘s sharp-tongued acting doyenne and her exasperated screenwriter daughter, played by Juliette Binoche, Kore-eda furthers his storied reputation as an artist humanely attuned to what transpires between those who know each other all too well.
The occasion for New York-based Lumin (Binoche) to visit her screen star mom, Fabienne (Deneuve), is the impending release of the latter’s memoirs, which seem built more on the invented (and self-serving) than the real (and perhaps problematic). With her jovial American actor husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and their energetic bilingual daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), in tow for emotional support, Lumin is drawn into old tensions with a wily antagonist, pushing back against her glamorously brittle mother’s published lies only to get such flinty retorts as “I’m an actress, I won’t tell the naked truth,” and “My memories, my book.”
At the same time, Fabienne is shooting a movie with enough parallels to her life (and life on the big screen) to trigger plenty of vulnerabilities and concerns. For a sought-after director’s sci-fi drama, and opposite a rising star (Manon Clavel) playing a space-traveling mother who never ages, Fabienne has taken the role of the youthful lead’s daughter at age 73. The reverse dynamic feeds all the actress’ fears about aging and legacy, which in turn causes further discord when Lumin keeps bringing up grievances about the past. (Kore-eda, whose own oeuvre has occasionally dabbled in the fantastical, borrowed the concept of the movie-within-the-movie from Hugo-winning author Ken Liu’s short story “Memories of My Mother.”)
Fabienne — a role Deneuve stirs brilliantly with ice, tonic and aromatics — isn’t unaware of the effects of her narcissism. That nearly her every exchange is peppered with insults feels both ingrained and deliberate, and when presented with the chance to charm a granddaughter she rarely sees, she happily plays along with the girl’s belief that Grandma might really be a witch (one of Fabienne’s famed movie roles, we learn). Meanwhile, confronted with the departure of her long-suffering assistant Luc (Alain Libolt) — whom she fails to mention in her book — Fabienne hardly seems bothered, as if her everyday role as a cinema diva isn’t worth disrupting to assuage someone’s hurt feelings.
Juliette Binoche, left, Clémentine Grenier and Ethan Hawke in the movie “The Truth.”
(Laurent Champoussin / IFC Films)
Of course, none of this is played like some turbulent family melodrama — Kore-eda is too sly and patient for that. He likes what is quiet yet charged between people, and how the molecules in the air shift as a result. (Kore-eda, using a French crew, directed through an interpreter.) “The Truth” is, if anything, light, loose, and funny, a generational dance performed by pros — Binoche sweating out steps around Deneuve’s just-so movements — all the while guided by a filmmaker who knows when the spotlight should be harsh and when side lights are needed to suggest depth and softness. Hawke mostly stands aside like a bemused, occasionally targeted-for-ridicule guest, his playful dad vibe a pleasant coloring as Fabienne and Lumin separately strategize a reconciliation while trying not to give up any advantage.
Like many Kore-eda movies — which start like gentle wades and gradually reveal a warm deep end — “The Truth” saves a few clever turns in its simple story for when they’re most revealing. So while you can enjoy it for the surface pleasures of Deneuve riffing on her legend status — there’s even a signifying moment with a “Belle de Jour”-like black dress — it unveils a keen wisdom about emotional resourcefulness in families that sits as well in Kore-eda’s filmography as any of his other homegrown gems.
In French with English subtitles
Rated: PG, for thematic and suggestive elements, and for smoking and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Available July 3 on digital and VOD