When Catherine Deneuve appears in “The Truth” she isn’t simply in character. She comes in accompanied by a multiplicity of other roles and previous performances, by former directors and co-stars, old loves and scandals and triumphs, all crowding around her like phantoms. That’s often the case now with Deneuve, who, like any enduring star, has become a living testament to her own glory. Even when she’s playing relatively down-to-earth characters, she transcends their ordinary constraints.
In “The Truth,” the Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda wittily toys with Deneuve’s persona, its layers and meanings. (This is his first movie outside of Japan.) She plays Fabienne, a figure not unlike herself, or perhaps more like an admirer’s fantasy of a great French star. With decades of fame behind her, Fabienne has reached a waning point. She’s still active and has begun a new film, but she doesn’t have the lead role and now mostly plays the star at home, where she lords over her doting husband and an assistant. When “The Truth” opens, she’s giving an interview, having recently written a memoir (also titled “The Truth”), an imperfect testament to herself.
Like all monuments, Fabienne depends on recognition for stature. The journalist interviewing her isn’t discussing only her history, but also worshiping at an altar that she has long helped maintain. The first line in the movie — “I already answered that question,” Fabienne says tartly — suggests that the interview isn’t going well. Here and throughout “The Truth,” the seemingly spontaneous moment, an aside or look, carries as-yet-undisclosed depth. For while Fabienne is making her interlocutor squirm, her behavior is of a piece with the roles she plays with great fidelity: the imperious star, the oblivious narcissist and occasional, inadvertent comedian.
You grasp just how accidental when the journalist asks “To what actress have you imparted some of your DNA?” Fabienne looks at him, eyebrows arching in a moment that artfully edges toward comedy. “In France, not really anyone,” she says through a screen of cigarette smoke. Kore-eda then cuts to a small group of people walking through what look like woods, their backs to the trailing camera. When they clear the greenery, the image brightens — an effect like theater curtains parting — and you see a young girl with a woman and a man. They’re at the edge of a large garden that will soon become a stage. Only when the woman turns do you see that it’s Juliette Binoche.
One of the pleasures of Kore-eda’s filmmaking is how its power sneaks up on you. His visual style is precise yet unassuming, as is his approach to narrative. In “The Truth,” as elsewhere in his catalog (his last movie was “Shoplifters”), the story gradually emerges through an accretion of details and personal dynamics, often in families that stand in for the larger world. Things happen quietly or offscreen. The drama is measured out in sips, in gazes, gestures, silences, off-handed humor and shocks of brutality. The movie has scarcely begun when the journalist notices Fabienne’s approaching visitors. “It’s nothing,” she says. “My daughter and her little family.”
Binoche of course is the daughter, Lumir, which adds both a nicely acid and amusingly meta touch to Fabienne’s claim that no one in France has her acting DNA. Like so much in “The Truth,” the casting of these two generational legends as mother and daughter enriches a nimbly self-reflexive exploration of the stories we tell, privately and publicly, to shape our lives, the once upon a time of existence. Fabienne is an actress but she’s also a fabulist, as Lumir is reminded when she starts reading her mother’s memoir. Lumir, for her part, is a loving mother and wife, as well as a screenwriter and a collector of grievances. Fabienne has supplied her with plenty.
Much of “The Truth” involves Lumir’s little family and its trip — a delightful, shambling Ethan Hawke plays her husband — which works in counterpoint to Fabienne’s new movie, a science-fiction tale about mother love and betrayal. Some of this doesn’t work as smoothly as it could. There’s too much familiar behind-the-scenes fussing, the anxious fictional director and so on. (Filmmakers love making movies about movies more than many of us like watching them.) At their finest, though, these scenes allow Deneuve to go deeper with her character, a woman who over the years has reserved her being, her feelings, vulnerability and perhaps love for the camera.
Well, that’s one take anyway. Another is provided when, during production, Fabienne flees the set and scrambles into a car, pulling off her character’s wig. Fabienne’s composure drops, as does Deneuve’s hauteur. In their place is a panicked wreck in full makeup and naked terror, demanding to be driven off, oddly (ridiculously), to a crêperie. Lumir has followed. And as Fabienne grimaces, clutching her collar like a trapped suspect, she says “I can’t do it.” Then she draws herself up to deliver a magnificent lie. “I can’t act anymore,” she announces, as the movie continues, nearly imperceptibly, shuttling between the drama of pathos and comic, human absurdity.