Producer: Muriel Merlin   Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda   Screenplay: Hirokazu Kore-eda   Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Clémentine Grenier, Manon Clavil, Alain Libolt, Christian Crahay, Roger Van Hool, Ludivine Sagnier, Laurent Capelluto, Sébastian Chassagne, Hannah Castel Chiche, Mailys Dumon, Maya Sansa and Jackie Berroyer   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B+

There’s a striking resemblance between this new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters’) and Ira Sachs’s “Frankie,” which came out earlier this year.  Each is about a family reunion centered around an iconic French actress, played by a legendary French actress—in the case of “Frankie,” Isabelle Huppert and here Catherine Deneuve.  Each was made by a director who’s an outsider to the world they depict.  And both are witty, touching and cinematically rich.

In Sachs’s film, Françoise (Huppert) was suffering from a recurrence of cancer, and summoned her family (as well as friends) for a final get-together, with plans to arrange things in line with her wishes for the future.  In Kore-eda’s film, which he adapted from a short story by Ken Liu, Fabienne Dangeville (Deneuve) is aging but vibrant, haughty, and totally self-absorbed; she is also currently preparing to make an arty science-fiction picture starring a young actress named Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavil) and directed by an upstart filmmaker (Sébastian Chassagne), with both of whom she’s curt and scornful.  At home she’s imperious with her ultra-efficient, long-serving aide Luc (Alain Libolt) and her second husband Jacques (Christian Crahay), a laid-back fellow who loves to cook.  And she disposes of the fawning reporter (Laurent Capelluto) who’s interviewing her with withering contempt for his predictable questions.

She’s also published a memoir titled “La Vérité”—“The Truth”—for which the publisher has ordered a huge first printing of 100,000.  It’s the book that’s brought her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter, from America to Paris with her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), an easygoing television actor, and their sweet little daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier).  Lumir, who’s somewhat estranged from Fabienne, hasn’t seen the manuscript, and wonders how accurate it is. 

The answer, from her perspective, is not very; for her its title is heavy with irony (as is, for us, the title of the film).  Fabienne dismisses her daughter’s complaints by saying that the truth would be dull, but Lumir holds on to her grudges about the treatment she got from her mother as a child—though, as the script repeatedly emphasizes, all memory is flawed and what actually happened might be quite different from what one believes.  She’s especially angry about Fabienne’s treatment of fellow actress Sarah Mondavan, supposedly her best friend, who became a sort of surrogate mother to Lumir and died in what appears to have been either an accident or suicide when Fabienne stole the role that won her a César.  Things get even thornier when Pierre (Roger Van Hool), Lumir’s wayward, long absent father, shows up and Luc abruptly resigns, suggesting that Lumir take over his duties.

All these domestic entanglements are juxtaposed with scenes from the film Fabienne is shooting—a fable titled “Memories of My Mother,” about a woman (Clavil) whose terminal illness can be stopped in its tracks by her going into space, where time stands still and she does not age.  That cure, however, means that she must leave behind her husband and daughter Amy, whom she periodically returns to visit.  While she remains perpetually youthful, however, Amy ages; she’s played by Hannah Castel Chiche at age ten, Mailys Dumon at seventeen, Ludivine Sagnier at thirty-eight and Deneuve’s Fabienne at seventy-five.  In making the film, Fabienne is led to contemplating her relationship with Lumir, and in acting as her mother’s assistant, Lumir must confront her attitude toward Fabienne.  The situation is complicated by the fact that Manon so closely resembles the long-departed Sarah. 

When related in such straightforward terms, Kore-eda’s scenario might sound melodramatic, but though there are undercurrents of melancholy and regret, he presents it with such a light touch that the film comes across as more effervescent than manipulative.  There are repeated notes of magic in Fabienne’s connection with Charlotte, and in the child’s relationship with her father (as well as Pierre’s with Lumir)—as well as in an impromptu dance outside a restaurant.  There’s also a delicious scene when Charlotte airily lies to the actress playing ten-year old Amy (who has been, to be fair, rather snooty to her), as well as a cheeky suggestion toward the close that the reconciliation between mother and daughter has been cannily effected by the person who’s arranged most of Fabienne’s life for her, like the final trick of a wizard.

And even if one might complain about contrivances in the narrative, “The Truth” is so beautifully appointed and wonderfully acted as to render any flaws insignificant.  The production design by Riton Dupier-Clement and costumes by Pascaline Chavanne are exquisite, and Eric Gautier’s cinematography is gorgeous, especially in the scenes set in Fabienne’s garden.  Kore-eda has done the editing himself, letting the film unfold gracefully, and employs Alexeï Aïgui ‘s sprightly score sparingly so that it doesn’t overwhelm.

But it’s the performances he secures across the board that make the film truly special.  Deneuve is simply magnificent, embodying both Fabienne’s innate hauteur and her vulnerabilities both as a person and an actress.  As Lumir, Binoche comes across rather brusquely at first, but grows more emotive as the story proceeds, and by the end is positively warm.  Though he has less to do, Hawke makes Hank positively lovable despite his obvious flaws, and Grenier gives a delightfully nuanced performance as little Charlotte.  Add sharp turns by Clavil and Sagnier, impeccable ones from Libolt and Crahay, and a dottily exuberant cameo by Van Hool, and you have an ensemble without a single weak link. 

For all its many virtues, though, this is primarily a triumph of Deneuve, for whom it is kind of a career summation, and Kore-eda, who proves that his distinctive sensibility knows no national boundaries.  Verily, “The Truth” is delectable.