François Cluzet and Marion Cotillard star in the latest success from Guillaume Canet (Tell No-One).
Even with many years of cinema viewing experience, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to determining whether a new film is likely to appeal or not. You can read all the reviews you like, but all you will get is a variety of different opinions. Over the years however, you can built up some general guidelines that hold true more often than not, but when it comes to films that built up a huge momentum of success and/or critical attention, there’s no option really but to go and see for yourself and make your own mind up. Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs) is just such a case of a film that can’t be ignored on account of its runaway success at home in France – the film taking nearly one and a half million ticket sales in its opening week alone. Added to that, you have to take into consideration that the director Guillaume Canet’s previous feature – Tell No One, an adaptation of Harlan Coben’s thriller – was a well-made debut directing feature from one of the best actors in France that fully deserved its popular success.
Even within those positive indicators, there are however some caveats that suggest that the film should still be approached with caution. Firstly, box-office success in France, more often than not, is not an indicator of quality, particularly when it comes to home-grown movies. Then, there’s the fact that, despite its success, Little White Lies didn’t do well at the French cinema awards the Césars. That’s really neither here nor there however, the Césars being no more an indicator of the best in French cinema than the Oscars are of American cinema. There’s also, personally speaking, a general guideline to beware of actor-director films. There are exceptions to the rule of course – John Cassavetes being a prime example (but even there, his films have more than their share of actorly indulgences particularly in the case of Gena Rowlands) – but generally, and particularly when working with a bunch of your actor friends, the chances are that it could turn out to be rather self-indulgent. The warning signal for me in respect of Little White Lies was Canet’s appearance on the cover of the French Première cinema magazine at the time of the release of film in France last October, looking into the camera with tears streaming down his face, proclaiming the film to be the “film of my life”. Clocking in at two and a half hours, self-indulgence becomes a worryingly very real prospect – but, on the other hand, it could very well be a film that comes directly from heart.
If not directly from the heart, the indication is that the film, Canet’s first original film script, at least comes from personal experience and from a love of a certain type of cinema exemplified by Peter’s Friends or, at best, The Big Chill. That’s perhaps another indicator that will set off warnings on the personal film-viewing guidelines of some potential viewers, but – as with the Cassavetes exception to the rule – it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. In essence, the film is about a group of friends who get together every year for the summer holidays at the holiday home of Max (François Cluzet) in the south of France. This year, each of the friends seem to be having personal and relationship problems with their partners, and to a lesser extent, between each other. One of the party, Ludo, moreover is in hospital, seriously ill after a motoring accident, but since there is nothing they can do for him while he is kept away from visitors in intensive care, they decide that there’s no point in giving up their annual excursion. While there are some moments of fun on the sea in Max’s new boat, the personal difficulties rise to the surface, tensions increase, tempers flare and relationships become somewhat fraught as the holiday progresses.
In essence then, since there is no real plot to speak of, Little White Lies is a character-driven film where each of the characters has reached a stage in their life where their personality flaws can no longer be sustained and they have to either change their behaviours and accept or learn to deal with the responsibilities of adult life or else crash in a big way. That in itself isn’t a problem, particularly when you have a fine set of actors assembled as Canet does here (Canet remaining behind the camera himself), but while these characters may mean more to the writer-director, I think Canet over-estimates how much sympathy a cinema audience is likely to have for these self-indulgent, self-obsessed, well-off, bourgeois characters and their lifestyles. The social class of the characters doesn’t necessarily have to be any kind of reason why the audience shouldn’t be able to relate to their problems – which are in essence no different from the relationship problems for anyone else – but it doesn’t help that Canet’s script, while on the surface witty and well-orchestrated, gives the characters no real depth.
Almost every one of the one-dimensional characters can be summed up by one particular behaviour. Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is obsessed with his ex-girlfriend and irritates everyone by trying to decide how to respond to the frequent text messages that fly between them. Éric (Gilles Lelouche) can’t help himself when it comes to seducing beautiful women, and it’s preventing him from sustaining a meaningful relationship with his girlfriend Léa. Marie (Marion Cotillard) has a similar commitment-phobia from a female perspective, which means that she and Éric have something in common. Max (Cluzet), the organiser and host of the yearly holiday with his eco-friendly wife, is a control-freak to such an extent that he can’t relax, becoming stressed over every aspect of the holiday, while at the same time obsessively keeping an eye on the security cameras at the restaurant he owns from his laptop. His edginess isn’t helped when one of his closest friends, Vincent (Benoît Magimel), confesses that, although married with a child, he has developed an irresistible crush on him that he hopes could deepen into love.
I think the viewer would find it difficult to come up with other defining characteristics that give any greater depth to the characters than those outlined above. As charmingly played as they are by the actors, as much leeway that Canet gives then through his direction (bringing them together before the shoot, living together and having fun together as a way of bonding), and as much as he gives them all the close-ups they could ever dream of and plenty of situations to emote, none of them are able to bring anything deeper or even slightly ambiguous out of the characters than is plainly evident on the surface and in the interchanges of dialogue in the script. What is worse however, is that Canet’s script over-emphasises even these most obvious of characteristics, emotions and frictions. You don’t need to work out anything here, the characters will eventually describe their own situation, when they come to that crisis point, in a neat line that sums them up entirely – or someone will do it for them.
There’s not much to actually dislike then in Little White Lies. It doesn’t have any more depth than the double-episode of Friends where they go on holiday to the beach, but it has great French actors, it runs them through a number of fun situations and, as I’ve mentioned, it is wonderfully orchestrated by Canet to the extent that even with no plot to speak of, the two-and-a half hours never drag. Like Cédric Klapisch’s recent French ensemble piece Paris however, it has however no great depth whatsoever, it doesn’t have anything to say about the people of a certain class, generation or nationality, and it gives the viewer no reason why we should like or even care about these self-indulgent, superficial and ultimately rather unlikeable characters who have no real redeeming qualities other than what lies between them for the time that they’ve spent together. I’ve said that the film never feels too long at two and a half hours, but I’m going to correct that. Canet’s orchestration of the film is so good that he does manage to bring the film back together at the end, but if the director thinks that the characters are in any way redeemed by the obscene outpouring of emotion at the coda that ends moreover with a nauseating freeze-frame, it’s a serious miscalculation.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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