The thrill is gone.
No, I don't mean that. Not entirely. The joy of a good movie—the thing that, in the words of Pauline Kael, "can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theater"—is still there. But Kael could not anticipate the dull funk and hopelessness that goes with being afraid to slip into a theater.
There is something magical, indeed almost sacramental, about entering a theater. This is especially true of live stage performances, but only slightly less in the case of movies. In anticipation of a measure of enchantment, large or small, we suspend for a couple of hours not only our disbelief, but the pattern of our lives. A movie is in a very real sense a holiday, and depending on the film we might get more out of those two hours than we might out of a two-week vacation trip.
Covid-19 robbed us of that, for how long no one knows. Theaters all over the country, reopening gingerly this summer after months of closure, have been forced to shut down again because of sparse business. An unmistakable sign of continuing trouble came July 28, when AMC Theaters and Universal announced an agreement to allow new movies to move from theaters to digital platforms after only 17 days, guaranteeing three weekends in theaters, down from the previous requirement of 70 to 90 days.
As a sixty-five-year-old Type 2 diabetic, I'm guessing others will feel safe to re-enter movie theaters before I do. I miss theaters terribly, but I'm not willing to risk death by going to one. The downside, however, is that preparing to watch a first-run movie has all the thrill of preparing to watch the evening news. I miss the ritual of leaving one plane of existence and entering another. The thrill isn't gone, but the anticipation is.
That feeling is true even with movies that aren't blockbusters. This past month I saw two new movies on Amazon Prime—Patrick Vollrath's taut airplane thriller 7500 and Hirozaku Kore-eda's wry, poignant dramedy La Verite (The Truth). The two movies have exactly two points in common: they are both available only on streaming, and they are small, low-budget movies that are perfectly enjoyable if watched in a living room. I liked both movies very much. But would I have liked them more had I seen them in a theater? At the very least they would have seemed more special to me.
7500, an Austrian-German-U.S.co-production, experiments with a restricted space even more radically than Hitchcock did with Lifeboat. Almost the entire movie takes place in real time in the cockpit of a jet flying from Berlin to Paris. Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young American pilot working for a German airline, is co-pilot; Gokce (Aylin Tezel), the mother of his child, is an attendant on the same flight. The plane takes off on time, but almost immediately Tobias and pilot Michael (Carlos Kitzlinger) hear sounds of struggle in the cabin. The closed-circuit camera tells the grim story: terrorists are hijacking the flight.
From this point, the story of 7500 consists of Tobias' struggle first to keep the terrorists from entering the cockpit, then to keep them from crashing the plane, then finally to keep Vedat (Omid Memar), the last surviving terrorist, from killing him.
7500—its title taken from the Emergency Responder Code for "unlawful interference"—is a ninety-minute exercise in unremitting suspense, as densely packed and explosive as a pipe bomb. Vollrath keeps the film tightly focused, but the true glories of 7500 are the performances of Gordon-Levitt, one of the best actors of his generation, and the talented newcomer Memar. Gordon-Levitt makes Tobias' anguish heartbreakingly immediate, and Memar memorably presents Vedat's deranged desperation.
The Truth, as its title suggests, is not as easy to summarize as 7500. Essentially it is the story of the uneasy relationship between Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve), a legendary star of French cinema, and her screenwriter daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche). But more broadly it is a subtle, occasionally profound consideration of the nature of truth, the selectivity of memory, the anomaly of being an actor, and the ways in which we justify ourselves to ourselves.
The film—Kore-eda's first not in Japanese or set in Japan—begins with Lumir, her TV-actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their small daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) arriving at Fabienne's house in the Paris suburbs. They are there to congratulate Fabienne on the publication of her memoirs, which she titled, "The Truth." In reading the book, however, Lumir discovers that it contains half-truths, outrageous whoppers, and crucial omissions. For instance, the book says that Pierre (Roger Van Hool), Lumir's father, is dead. The book also does not mention Sarah Mondavan, an actress friend of Fabienne's who died young, and whom Lumir remembers tenderly.
Fabienne is dismissive when Lumir confronts her. "I'm an actress!" she proclaims. "I don't tell the naked truth, it's far from interesting. My book, my truth. I can pick and choose, can't I?"
Fabienne's latest movie is a science-fiction story in which she plays an elderly woman whose mother remains forever young. This exacerbates the tensions between Fabienne and Lumir, especially because Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel), the actress who plays the mother, is strikingly reminiscent of Sarah Mondavan. The situation comes to a head when Lumir accuses her mother of having been distant to the troubled Sarah when she needed her most.
"You make it sound as if I killed her!" Fabienne exclaims.
"Didn't you?" Lumir answers.
The Truth is a delicate, funny-sad exploration of the relationship between Fabienne and Lumir, as well as a portrait of a woman who has spent her life framing and embossing her self-image. As played by Deneuve, Fabienne is an exercise in contradictions, imperious and yet warm, dismissing gaps in her memory or being caught in a lie with a toss of her head and a "Bof-bof" ("blah-blah-blah"). Fabienne is blithely unconcerned with anything not directly connected to herself. When her long-suffering agent Luc (Alain Libolt) announces that he's leaving to live with his son and six grandchildren, Fabienne says, "I didn't know Luc has six grandchildren!"
Even when Fabienne is speaking the absolute truth, she can never disassociate it from acting. After a tender exchange with Lumir, she sits up in alarm: she should have used that emotion in her final scene in the movie, which has already been shot.
Binoche is fully Deneuve's match as Lumir, emphasizing the character's skeptical, questing writer's spirit. Hawke also has his moments as the slightly dim Hank, such as when he sits through Fabienne's long rant about her daughter. The rant is entirely in French, which Hank does not speak, and yet he seems to understand it all.
The mother-daughter relationship remains essentially loving, and the arguments never rise above a certain pitch. This isn't Autumn Sonata. There is a theme in the film about Fabienne portraying a witch in the film version of Charlotte's favorite book. Even more prominent is the theme of The Wizard of Oz, whose main character of course is a total liar, but a benign one. At one point, it is revealed that Lumir's only attempt at acting was as the Cowardly Lion in a grade-school production of Wizard, and she was terrible. At another, it is revealed that Fabienne's pet terrier is named Toto.
There are many factual assertions in The Truth, the accuracy of which the audience is left to discover. When Lumir and her family arrive at Fabienne's house, Charlotte says, "This house is a castle!" Lumir answers, "Except there's a prison behind it." Charlotte has been to the house before, but Hank has not; he says that he was shooting a film during the previous visit. You will find out which one of these statements is true; I will only note that Fabienne and Lumir have one emphatic point of agreement: all men are liars.
Everything that happens in The Truth plays out in the nebulous space between truth, white lies, and brazen lies. After Lumir has Charlotte tell Fabienne a kindly intended fib about wanting to grow up to be an actress just like her grandmother, Charlotte asks Lumir, "But is it the truth or isn't it?"
The Truth is a satisfying film about the acting life, family life, and life in total, and how memory and perception influence all. Like 7500, it is not a film that requires a theater to make an impact on viewers. But would I have preferred to make the acquaintance of Tobias Ellis or Fabienne Dangeville in hushed darkness, surrounded by fellow moviegoers and the smell of popcorn? I don't think I need to tell you.