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Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche might be the most beloved living actresses from France, which says a lot: That’s a country that really loves its leading ladies. But until now, they had never worked together. All it took was an offer from acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) to star in his first Western-language film. In his piercing family drama The Truth, Kore-eda scripted for Deneuve and Binoche the kind of roles no actor can turn down—a mother and daughter with lingering issues and a hereditary gift for cruelty. The actors respond in kind, elevating his thoughtful script with powerful, lived-in performances.

Like almost all of Kore-eda’s Japanese films, The Truth is a portrait of a family at a turning point. Fabienne (Deneuve) is a former ingenue approaching old age with bitterness. She just published a memoir that pissed off all her friends and family members, and is preparing for a new film, in which she was cast in a decidedly minor role opposite a hot, young starlet (Manon Clavel). Fabienne’s daughter Lumir (Binoche), a Hollywood screenwriter, has come to visit, with her actor husband (Ethan Hawke) and their young daughter (Clémentine Grenier) in tow. Lumir has reached that age when she feels she has outgrown their dysfunctional parent-child dynamic, but as she re-enters the property for the first time since childhood, she spots an old tortoise in the same spot where she used to play with it. The message is clear: Some things never die.

Using a short story by sci-fi fantasy writer Ken Liu as a jumping-off point, Kore-eda smashes his characters’ personal and professional lives together like toy trains, fixing his eye on the falling debris. Fabienne’s new film, based on the Liu story, awakens new truths in her. It’s a sci-fi movie in which she plays a daughter who, due to the vagaries of time travel, is now older than her mother and regrets having lost so much time together. As Lumir stands off-camera watching her mother speak the words of love she has yearned to hear from her, The Truth reveals itself to be a fascinating exploration of the benefits and limits of confronting emotional truths through art.

That these characters are played by Deneuve and Binoche, whose careers represent different eras of French filmmaking, adds another delightful lens through which to view the film. As Fabienne bemoans the talents of her younger, hipper co-stars, it’s easy to imagine her having once felt the same way about Binoche, who rockteted her way to international stardom in the ’80s and ’90s. If leaned on too heavily, this meta-textual angle would overwhelm the drama, but the two actors stay firmly committed to the moment. Each withering glance produces a visible wound, and every moment of real vulnerability feels like a light in a great darkness.

The high drama and post-modern intrigue are beautifully counter-balanced by Kore-eda’s easy naturalism. His methodical staging and realistic lighting might seem at first a keener fit for his Japanese films, in which emotions are revealed more carefully. Here, as Binoche and Deneuve open old wounds and expose their most raw emotions, his measured style has a beguiling effect. It’s okay to smile, even laugh, at their struggles, because all of this drama is just a natural part of life. 

The Truth is available Friday on VOD.