Catherine Deneuve’s varied film career from sweet ingénue (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort) to tormented bourgeoise (Repulsion, Belle de Jour, Tristana), femme fatale (Mississippi Mermaid) to refined lady (her American sojourn in The April Fools, Hustle, her Oscar nomination for Indochine), and then, in her richest stage, a figurehead of contemporary moral crisis (especially those extraordinary André Téchiné films Hotel d’Amérique, Scene of the Crime, My Favorite Season, and Les Voleurs) is all prelude to her commanding presence in the new French import The Truth (La Vérité). Deneuve plays legendary actress Fabienne Dangeville, who, as the privilege of beauty and age, lords her mystique over everyone. The payoff comes when she makes this casually devastating declaration:
When actresses start getting lost in charity and politics, they lose vis-à-vis the profession. They’ve lost the battle on screen, so they dive into reality. They pretend to fight against reality, it’s not the contrary. I’ve always won that battle. That’s why I can withstand solitude.
We’re unlikely to witness such brutal honesty about the clash of art and politics in any other movie this year. Bette Davis’s lovelorn French Provincial furniture speech in All About Eve (“without that, you’re not a ‘woman’”) wasn’t nearly so tough. Fabienne/Deneuve (who boasts “I’ve never apologized to a man”) swans her way through the pretenses and shallow principles displayed by today’s crusading actresses.
That “lost the battle” speech particularly applies to the circumstances of Halle Berry’s caving in to the social-justice mobs this week with her obsequious apology for being “a cisgender female.” She prostrated herself for merely considering the role of a trans woman for an unmade film project. Critic Gregory Solman quipped, “Berry apologized for being an actress but not for her acting.” Berry’s career shift from bimbo to serious thespian happened with her degrading characterization in Monsters Ball. I recall an early 2002 screening of that film and the stunned consensus among black media folk: “What was she thinking?” (After winning a congratulatory Oscar for debasing herself, everyone suddenly decided that the movie and performance were just dandy.)
Berry’s capitulation to political fashion is yet another example of artists losing the battle to phony principles. In a period of mindless opportunism and craven self-justification, performers cowed by media tyranny refuse to defend personal integrity, if they even know what that means. It’s a weakness Fabienne/Deneuve abhors, which makes The Truth a confrontation with individual honesty — the missing element in current politics and the lost art of the millennium.
Honesty sets The Truth in motion. Fabienne’s newly published memoir, titled “The Truth,” takes liberties that offend her daughter Lumir (played by Juliette Binoche). “I’m an actress,” Fabienne insists. “I won’t tell the naked truth. It’s far from interesting.” That defense stymies Lumir, who is also a writer — her name is a catty irony (based on the word lumière/“light”) that mocks living in her famous mother’s shadow.
The Truth was written and directed by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose family films dramatize contemporary social tensions (such as Shoplifters, from 2018). This cross-cultural project pays homage to French cinema to explore the façades and maneuvers of intimate relations. Fabienne’s current role is in a semi-autobiographical film about shifting life stages that revives past career regrets with another actress and provokes tension with Lumir. She soldiers on: “I prefer to have been a bad mother and a bad friend and a good actress. The public forgives me.”
It’s almost a sneaky pleasure to watch Deneuve playing a fantasy of herself, her own legend. Now thick-waisted and stiff-necked, she wears Fabienne’s steely-eyed vanity well — it’s a roman à clef performance all the more interesting for possibly being true, being a little bit true, or not true at all. She’s a sacred monster yet praises her alliterative colleagues Michèle Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Anouk Aimée — and even gives Brigitte Bardot begrudging approval.
Deneuve and Binoche enact the beauty-vs.-frump dynamic that Ingmar Bergman used with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann in Autumn Sonata, and the merge of acting styles — different forms of personal integrity — brings the film’s meta concept back to reality. Kore-eda isn’t a playful director; he reveals the tedium that filmmaking is for actors and rarely places emphasis on emotion. Having no taste for camp, he avoids cheap sentiment, which Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, in All About Eve, also detested.
“Who needs magical powers. We get each other” is Fabienne and Lumir’s final rapprochement. It’s empathy, the ennobling aspect of acting that is now threatened by the extremes of political correctness. Actresses such as Halle Berry and her many woke Hollywood colleagues lack the necessary pride and courage that The Truth presents with awe and ambivalence. But Kore-eda knows: A scared artist is a contradiction in terms; it betrays their vocation.