It’s no great truth to say that actors are, by necessity, chameleons. Their job, after all, is to step away from their natural selves and in essence become the characters in the movies or plays in which they’re appearing.
You’d think this would be easy. All of us did it, in one way or another, as children. And while our efforts might have earned praise, even if undeserved, from our families, it didn’t mean that our performances were even remotely convincing.
Great acting involves making others believe that you’re being, in a word, authentic. As the great Al Pacino once said, “I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”
Pacino’s words are particularly apt for the film “The Truth,” a mostly French-language film starring two of France’s great actresses: Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. I say “mostly” French-language because some of the dialogue is in English, and the director – improbable as it may seem – is the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda.
Working from a script that he adapted – very loosely adapted – from a short story by the science-fiction writer Ken Liu, Koreeda focuses on Fabienne Dangeville (played by Deneuve), a much-revered septuagenarian actress, and her daughter Lumir (played by Binoche), a Hollywood screenwriter.
Lumir has come to Paris to help celebrate the publication of Fabienne’s autobiography. Accompanying her are her husband Hank, an American television actor (played by Ethan Hawke), and their daughter Charlotte (charmingly played by Clémentine Grenier). And we immediately get an idea of just how difficult Fabienne can be when she sniffs at both the timid questions of a celebrity journalist and the notion that Hank is a quote-unquote actor.
If that isn’t enough, Lumir learns that her mother’s longtime manager, Luc, is planning to quit. Seems that despite their four-decade-plus association, Fabienne neglected to mention him in her book. “Not one line,” he says.
Even worse, Lumir discovers that what her mother has chosen to write about is – to her way of thinking – pure fiction. And she points out one damning passage, in which Fabienne describes how attentive she was as a parent when, Lumir insists, it was her mother’s late rival, Sarah, who showered her with attention. The same Sarah who, like Luc, gets no mention in the book – even if Lumir is convinced that Fabienne bears some responsibility for Sarah’s death.
But mother-daughter relations being what they are, Lumir hangs around, perhaps hoping for some sort of connection, in any event taking Luc’s place as Fabienne goes to work on a film that stars an actress of the moment (played by Manon Clavel), someone who is said to the new Sarah, which doesn’t thrill Fabienne in the slightest.
This film within a film, by the way, is Koreeda’s connection to sci-fi writer Liu’s short story. It involves a woman who, dying of a terminal illness, travels to outer space where – Liu’s imaginative theory tells us – she can’t age. So she returns every several years to visit her daughter who does age. In the film, Fabienne plays the daughter, now old, connecting with her mother, still young.
Which is another version of Lumir’s own relationship with Fabienne, though maybe her memories aren’t quite what she recalls, just as Fabienne’s version isn’t just a tad more made up than she lets on.
The best part of “The Truth” is the slow realization that each character comes to, Lumir’s ultimate acceptance of her mother’s essential narcissism – an emotional trait that informs her very essence as an actress – and Fabienne’s acceptance of what keeps her going as she approaches her eighth decade: her ability to mine emotions for their thespian value and her willingness to sacrifice nearly everything, and everyone, to exploit it.
In the end, it’s difficult to say what is Koreeda’s greater achievement: his ability to help Deneuve find a way to make Fabienne seem more vulnerable than merely shrill or his skill at creating a film that feels as French as a warm baguette and a hunk of tasty cheese.
Turns out when it comes to movies, directors can be chameleons, too.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.