You can’t trust memory.
Despite the title of her autobiography being La vérité [The Truth], it takes a while before Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) says what we know to actually be true. Her stories about being a loving mother in text are just that: stories. Despite being a screenwriter, not even Fabienne’s daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) could conjure an anecdote that bore any resemblance to such an idyllic façade if she tried. But while everything boils down to what the aging actress finally expresses during a defensive fit of anger, Fabienne has no desire to make excuses or play the victim. She speaks with a clear head when saying she’d do it all over again because being a bad mother, wife, and friend helped ensure she’d become a great actor.
The self-centered, petty opportunist we meet inside Hirokazu Koreeda‘s film isn’t therefore some new personality Fabienne adopted along the way. It’s who she is and always has been complete with jealousies towards anyone who dared to achieve what she couldn’t. She resented her late friend Sarah for having more talent and somehow also having more time to be a better mother figure to Lumir than she ever could. She resented her husband Pierre (Roger Van Hool) for being the one who got all the praise whenever their daughter spoke of her parents. And she continues to work a loyal entourage (including Alain Libolt as her manager Luc) to the brink of quitting as diva demands cement into an identity beyond mere quirk. Fabienne makes everything solely about her.
With a new role being one of the many iterations of a character fated to only see her ageless mother once every seven years, the comparison points between fact and fiction are obvious. Will the part give Fabienne a glimpse at the sorrow Lumir must have felt growing up with an absentee mom? Will acting alongside a newcomer (Manon Clavel‘s Manon Lenoir) who’s been billed as “the next Sarah” make her think about the friendship/rivalry that died so long ago? And how will Lumir’s presence—the first time her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) has seen his mother-in-law since the wedding and second time young Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) has ever seen her grandmother—help Fabienne cut through the revisionist history that’s been drawn out of guilt, regret, and spite?
Koreeda might not be hiding the parallels made to connect mothers and daughters and past and present, but he does use a somewhat light touch in allowing them the space to breathe. Rather than bludgeoning us when a character adds two and two together, he lets who they are dictate how they respond. Maybe Lumir simply lets her emotions take control with the sort of rage we don’t have to presume was taught to her by her mother and maybe Fabienne brushes everything off to retain the pristine bubble she’s constructed atop the bodies of all she’s betrayed. For each moment that arises to expose just how similar these two women are comes another to prove how the daughter has learned (is still learning) from the mother’s mistakes.
So don’t expect forgiveness. Things aren’t heading towards some grand reconciliation wherein Fabienne’s heart grows big enough for Lumir to let her back into her life. We receive a sense of clarity on their parts instead. The answers that form may not be the ones they wished to hear many years ago, but they’re answers nonetheless. I’m not sure they’d want more than that anyway once heartfelt moments grind to halt because Fabienne acknowledges the emotions she’s sharing would better suit a scene she’s already shot. She’s always looking at life as a tool to wield within her career and Lumir isn’t that far behind in the opposite way. She’ll conversely write little scripts in order to manipulate real life reactions, molding reality to her whims.
What then is “truth” for this family? Hank deflects from a stint in rehab by saying he was “on set.” Fabienne practices compassion with family to transport it to the screen. And Lumir pulls strings like a puppeteer to maintain the self-sufficient control her mother’s absence forced her to adopt in youth. Sometimes they’re motivated by false memories and sometimes by purposeful deception—often simultaneously depending on whether one’s perspective shielded him/her from the full picture. Even when those examples come into complete focus, however, they’re still little more than illusions since we ultimately don’t do what we don’t want. We bluff, con, and trick our way into getting a reaction that’s as much earned as it is bluffed, conned, and tricked into existence by them.
There’s an authenticity to that result even if Koreeda’s film sometimes feels as though he’s merely pulling strings himself. I credit the performers for much of this since a majority of the runtime depicts conversations and/or arguments that slowly chip away at grudges to reveal the fear beneath. That of course brings up yet another in-film duality (The Wizard of Oz‘s Cowardly Lion), but these metaphors provide the space in which the actors can give their all. It shouldn’t surprise you that Binoche and Deneuve are the highlights by letting their strength unmask an ever-present vulnerability before recognizing how the love Lumir and Fabienne share in the way that they share it is enough. Support in absentia works because it prevents their penchant for face-to-face disappointment.
 Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne and Juliette Binoche as Lumir in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s THE TRUTH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
 [From left to right] Juliette Binoche as Lumir, Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne, Ethan Hawke as Hank, and Clémentine Grenier as Charlotte in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s THE TRUTH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
 [From left to right] Juliette Binoche as Lumir, Clémentine Grenier as Charlotte, and Ethan Hawke as Hank in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s THE TRUTH. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.