Hirokazukore-eda’s film The Truth, released in France in January and now available online, feels like a respectable weepie, a mother and daughter story, except that it keeps being hijacked. We quickly realise that the hijackers are the writer-director himself and film history, but we still have to decide what to make of it.

Of course, any film in which a famous actress (Catherine Deneuve) plays a famous actress, and another famous actress (Juliette Binoche) plays her daughter – who is a screenwriter, in the business but out of the limelight – is going to have its meta moments. But it isn’t bound to get lost in them, as in a series of whirlpools. Consider what may be going on when Deneuve’s character, Fabienne (Fabienne being Deneuve’s middle name), tells Binoche’s character, Lumir, that she couldn’t possibly understand how it feels to be an actress, and when, in an interview, she reflects on her successors in the cinema and can’t think of any – ‘not in France anyway’. Unless you’ve been on Mars, or have no interest in movies, a few titles will float into your mind. The star of Belle de jour, Repulsion and Time Regained is saying this to the star of Caché, the Three Colours trilogy and last year’s Non-Fiction, and – in the film – erasing the younger actress from history. There are also interesting games played with age. In The Truth, Fabienne has a film role playing a woman who at first is meant to be 73 and later meant to be 80. In the first scene, she looks some way off 73, and in order to look 80 she needs to wear a wig. Deneuve herself is 76.

Of course we should resist the distractions of biography and get back to the fictional characters and plot. But when we do, we find much the same story. There is more than a flicker of Sunset Boulevard about The Truth, which we could see as a Japanese-French reflection on time and stature in the movies. When, in Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond is told she ‘used to be big’, she replies: ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’ When, as a married adult, Lumir visits a film studio with her mother, she says that she remembers it being larger. ‘Tu as grandi,’ Fabienne says, meaning both that Lumir has grown up and that she’s got bigger. Also meaning, I think, that the pictures were always small unless she, Fabienne, was in them. Accused later in the film of caring more for herself than for her art form, she says: ‘I liked the films I was in.’

The Truth is the first film Kore-eda, best known for Still Walking (2008) and Shoplifters (2018), has made that is set outside Japan, and there is a sense that he is treading on familiar ground (if only familiar from the movies) while remaining delicately estranged. France is a Paris garden full of trees, a roomy old house neighbouring a prison, a film studio at Epinay, a Chinese restaurant, and little else. Most of the action takes place inside the house – that’s where the film opens, after a high-angle shot of the garden, with Fabienne in the middle of a newspaper interview about her autobiography, which has just been published. She is perky and witty, partly amused and partly annoyed, and bristles at the tactless question the interviewer has adapted from the television show Inside the Actors’ Studio: what will she say when she arrives at heaven’s gates? ‘Why are you asking that now?’ she answers. She has no plans for that sort of travel. As the interview continues, Lumir arrives through the garden, with her husband (Ethan Hawke) and her child (Clémentine Grenier). They have come from New York, ostensibly to celebrate the appearance of Fabienne’s book, but really, according to the all too obvious protocols, to continue a quarrel about the past.

At the heart of the quarrel is the memory of an actress called Sarah, who once rivalled Fabienne in the cinema and in Lumir’s affections. Sarah drowned when she went swimming after drinking too much – some critics believe the character is modelled on Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died aged 25 in 1967 – and Lumir thinks her mother effectively killed her by stealing a role from her in a movie that became a great success. Fabienne managed this, according to Lumir, by sleeping with the director. The allusions are a little complicated here. We are supposed to think of Deneuve’s criticism of the MeToo movement in 2018, especially when her character tells the interviewer that she may have sold her soul but that she never sold her body. In the film, Lumir suggests that Fabienne sold her body so that her soul could collect a César award.

Kore-eda lingers a little too long over the film within the film, since its conceptual interest far outweighs anything we actually see. This is a work called Memories of My Mother, in which the uncertainly-aged Fabienne plays a daughter whose mother does not grow old because she lives in space. The mother returns unchanged every seven years, while her daughter lives in time, played by one actress after another, with Fabienne the last in line. As we would expect, Fabienne finds a kind of truth in film fakery, even if she initially refuses to consider the film’s young star, Manon Lenoir (a name very close to that of the actress playing her, Manon Clavel), as any sort of reincarnation of Sarah. And we move from truth in falsehood to the idea of performance in truth, as relations between Fabienne and Lumir reach the point we expect them to. I’m not going to say any more, because the double surprise at the end is both funny and moving, but, since some critics have complained of mawkishness, I will say that in my view the mawkishness is lavishly displayed and then doubly cancelled, leaving us in a realm where art, vanity, control, writing, acting, lying and identity are all where they are supposed to be: part of the big picture and the small one.

The film is well written and directed, but none of it would work without the amazing work of its leading women. Binoche has the harder part, because she has to be so angry and straightfaced. There are glints of fun in the darkness, though, and Fabienne is wrong to think that Lumir ‘is really too serious’. Fabienne, on her own boulevard, is just as grand as Norma Desmond, but less operatic, quicker to take a cue, to make a joke of her own malice. In her early films, Deneuve projected a kind of inept beauty and innocence, always a little surprised at what they attracted. By the time she got to play Proust’s Odette it was clear she could do the slightly disreputable grande dame very well. That’s who she is here: louche, dignified, intelligent, rather childish in her pleasure at being mean to others. Deneuve’s too famous not to have thought about fame a lot.

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