By Mary Sollosi
July 03, 2020 at 08:00 AM EDT
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IFC Films

There are few living, working actors with an international stature and cultural legacy equal to Catherine Deneuve. An icon among icons, she was Jacques Demy's ingenue, Luis Buñuel's ice maiden, Yves Saint Laurent's muse; the face of Chanel No. 5 and of la France itself, as the onetime official model for French national symbol Marianne — and she hasn't gone anywhere.

The 76-year-old actress stars in Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth (out now on VOD) as Fabienne, an aging legend of the French cinema whose screenwriter daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche, compelling as always), visits her childhood home along with her young daughter and American actor husband (a brilliantly cast Ethan Hawke) upon the release of Fabienne's largely dishonest memoir. Lumir's indignation over the lies in the book — and perhaps more importantly, its glaring omissions — digs up long-buried tensions between a mother who shone too brightly and a daughter who felt too little of her light.

Following 2018's critically adored Shoplifters, Kore-eda stays in the family-drama territory he's known for, though without packing the same punch as that Palme d'Or winner. The Truth has a lightness to it, maintaining a sense of humor even as Fabienne's movie-star vanity darkens into genuine narcissism or (in one of the film's less successful devices) Lumir confronts her mother over a tragedy from their pasts, which Fabienne had tried to write out of her own memory.

It's the filmmaker's first non-Japanese-language feature, but you wouldn't know he hadn't been making French movies negotiating French cultural identity for the whole of his career, so specific is the perspective. Naturellement, it is Fabienne who most clearly stands as the nation's representative (Deneuve, after all, once very literally did as the face of Marianne), and she betrays a distinctly French preference for poetry over accuracy ("I'm an actress! I won't tell the naked truth — it's far from interesting," she says at one point), contributing to the tension that gives the film its simple but thorny title.

Fabienne is forced to contend with the hard truths of her legacy not only through her made-up memoir and her daughter's pent-up frustration, but with her work shooting a sci-fi movie called Memories of My Mother, in which she plays the oldest version of a daughter whose mother never ages. It's absurd, but somehow more honest than her decades-long performance of motherhood to Lumir, and the film's cleverest tricks and sharpest insights fall in the interplay between these layers of lies, some truer than others: a false plot sandwiched in a fictional story colored by its characters' memories, and all seen through the lens of our own world cinema mythology.

Because if anyone can handle The Truth, it's Deneuve. The French icon is as magnetic as ever, and she inhabits Fabienne (which is, incidentally, her own middle name) effortlessly, with a sly self-awareness that never undermines the fiction. Kore-eda honors his star's history, too, with subtle nods to her astonishing career, like a dress that unmistakably references her Belle de Jour wardrobe by Saint Laurent.

The haughty Fabienne isn't the same person as the woman who plays her, but make no mistake — nobody else could play her. At the very beginning of the film, when asked by a reporter whether she had followed in the footsteps of any actress that came before her, Fabienne is baffled by the question. "I never wondered that," she replies with a shrug. "I've always been myself." Ain't that the truth. B+

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