The Truth review: Together, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche are a gift to watch

Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Ludivine Sagnier, Clementine Grenier, Manon Clavel. PG, 107 mins

In some hazy, autumn-coloured Parisian quarter sits a well-fashioned manor house. Its white shutters are partially obscured by prying greenery. Down in the garden, Catherine Deneuve’s Fabienne perambulates while rehearsing her lines. She’s an actor. The uniform feels right: a silk kimono with a slate-grey trench layered on top. Later, we see her in a leopard-print coat.

This is exactly how we’d expect Deneuve to look off the screen – with a gentle wave of hair and sharp, arched eyebrows. The star sits atop an untouchable pedestal of French cinematic culture, her face immortalised in films such as Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Belle de Jour. The Truth is not a portrait of Deneuve’s private world (by any means), but it still feels like we’ve been made privy to some piece of tantalising gossip when Fabienne scoffs at the mention of Brigitte Bardot’s name.

It makes sense that writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda has picked such a hyper-French icon to front his first feature not in the Japanese language (the film oscillates between French and English). It’s also his first since Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Deneuve brings plenty of Gallic charm and wit to the table, though the film’s concerns are still strictly Kore-eda’s – namely, how thorny and fast-mutating family dynamics can be. The inciting incident here is the imminent publication of Fabienne’s memoirs, which attracts a visit from her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). She’s determined to get her hands on the manuscript. No surprise – Lumir soon fills its pages with Post-it notes, highlighting each bare-faced lie and delusional fantasy. Her mother never picked her up from school as a child. Her father definitely isn’t dead. But the most galling of all, in her eyes, is the total omission of Sarah, Fabienne’s former frenemy who died by suicide many years ago. Lumir remembers her with affection, but also as the woman her mother cheated out of a life-changing job.

Fabienne ignores Lumir’s concerns, focusing instead on the filming of a new sci-fi project. It’s about a woman who escapes to space and remains ageless, while her daughter is left behind on Earth. But phantoms can’t be brushed away so easily. The film’s lead (Manon Clavel) looks and sounds eerily like Sarah. It might all sound a little too on-the-nose, but Kore-eda makes it work. These coincidences are the hand of fate gently guiding Fabienne towards self-reflection. But she’s spent a lifetime channelling every thought and emotion into her work. “I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend and a good actress,” she says. “You may not forgive me, but the public does.” The boundaries between reality and pretence have collapsed – she can barely remember which of her contemporaries have died and which ones are still around. Lumir, meanwhile, has converted the lingering agony of a lonely childhood into a screenwriting career. She writes narratives for herself and for others. She’ll even write little speeches for her mother, who has a hard time apologising to people.

Kore-eda has always had an eye for detail. He finds heartbreak in daily gestures and rituals, like how Lumir has always refused to let her mother brush her hair – she rejects all attempts at intimacy. Lumir arrives at the house with her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke, easy and amiable as ever) and her daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier), who both float aimlessly within the vast fissure lying between mother and daughter. A painful conversation about Sarah’s suicide occurs right when Charlotte is parading around the dinner table, kissing all her relatives goodnight. And, while the naturally magnetic Deneuve demands attention, Binoche reverberates with quiet distress in the background. Their moments together in The Truth are a gift to watch, sweet and bitter like chocolate.

The Truth will be available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from 20 March