The expression of “holding court” may have historical roots with convening judges and members of royalty, but, make no mistake, actors can fit that idiom as well. A giddy movie fan can name memorable speeches and isolated moments of a performer taking over single scenes. Once in a great while, the energies of talent and material align where heralded thespians seemingly hold court over an entire film and not merely individual scenes. They do so in a fashion where every positive trait and competing negative flaw are on full and captivating display. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth is one of those films and the radiant star at its center is Catherine Deneuve.
To pull off holding court without reducing matters to the preening or showy variety, the performer must have screen presence. Deneuve, the ageless ingenue, “frigid femme fatale,” and “grande dame” of French cinema, has wattage for a thousand cameras, even now in her mid-70s. With that stature, compelling shock–waves come at will. The acting awe within The Truth is that Deneuve’s prestige is matched moment-to-moment by Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche, a contemporary, if you will, every bit as powerful as the senior. Their pairing as an estranged mother and daughter in the celebrity world writes cinematic scripture.
Deneuve is Fabienne Dangeville, an illustrious Cesar Award-winning actress who has reached a career point where the offered roles are smaller and less frequent. She is embarking on two projects to reignite her profile. The first is taking a supporting role in an existential science fiction film opposite the younger “It Girl” actress of the moment named Manon Lenoir (the debuting Manon Clavel). Sizing up what she considers competitors more than collaborators at table reads, Fabienne finds much of this genre of film beneath her to a large degree. She’s in this movie for the gravitas to give Lenoir a rub of credibility. Yet, she sees talent in Lenoir that reminds her of a peer named Sarah whom she lost from her own newcomer roots years ago.
Swallowed pride does not censor Fabienne (or the real Catherine coming through) in the slightest. How she presents herself steers the narrative. Her frank and hot take observations on the state of cinema surprise with their sharp veracity. Much of the film’s comedy comes from these candid revelations. The former diva earns “witch” comparisons and the ‘petty” label. She looks down on the help, longtime associates, and even her own family. You wonder how much of this is Fabienne’s true core or if she’s acting all the time to maintain a deliberate altruistic image.
Fabienne’s second initiative is publishing a grand autobiography of her celebrity life. Her adoring public may eagerly await her storied treatise, but her alienated daughter Lumir (Binoche) does not. Remembering a hard childhood of absence and ambivalence, Lumir suspects the sugar-coated content of the book and rightfully so. She has come to Fabienne’s home with her author husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and daughter Charlotte (Clementine Garnier) to support her work and bury a few hatchets. Hawke plays the listener and playful dad, himself someone turned sluggish by a sad career.
Fabienne tries to cover her written perspectives with the line “you can’t trust memory.” Such is true, but revision can push back truth. Likewise, reassessment can negate regrets that need to be corrected or addressed. As they spend time together on and off the film set and within her childhood home, filled with more bad triggers than good ones, Lumir confronts her mother and peels back their complicated history.
Both Dangeville women are initially incapable of pardoning the other. Fabienne must come to see not just her career mortality, but her familial one, when it comes to learning modesty and truly owning mistakes. Lumir needs an open heart to welcome that after decades of guarded disappointment. Any resolution hangs on those challenges and releases.
In those moments, the score of Alexei Aigui (I Am Not Your Negro) matches the emotions of the observed lives behind closed doors. Autumnal soft piano pushes a pendulum between levity and sorrow. Binoche asserts herself and becomes the true nucleus of The Truth. The way she shifts from hurt rigidity to softened empathy is formidable. Never the ingenue or the sought-after knockout, Juliette Binoche has reached a level of respect equal or greater to Deneuve already in her career. Clouds of Sils Maria was a similar showcase where she is already a matron passing torches. This is but one more she rightfully receives.
Sectioning the time spent with shifts like a stage play, Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters, Like Father, Like Son) edits his own film and lingers rightly on the revelatory conversations. The inquisitive asides like the granddaughter’s little connection with a pet turtle or Hawke’s background casualness never feel like extraneous fluff. Rather, they feel like parallel streams captured by the bright camera of Eric Gautier (Into the Wild). The views stand open like the inherited wounds, hiding very few little shadows within the richly appointed interiors created by Riton Dupire-Clément. The watchful film sets and Fabienne’s cavernous mansion are mere containers for the drama.
The richest artistry comes from the written storytelling from Kore-eda. Without his created character dynamics, all the finery and stellar casting are merely shells. The Truth is a ripe role for Catherine Deneuve. The fullness of that fruit is provided by poetry from the director, allowing for all of that successful court-holding. She is indeed the show. Paired with Binoche, Deneuve sparkles a genteel look underneath her character’s caustic honesty. The character may be chipped with flaws, but her star power is indestructible.