In Little White Lies, the fibs may be small but, at a whopping two hours and 34 minutes, the movie sure isn't. And that's a big problem. In what's meant to be a French take on The Big Chill - comedy meets pathos as friends gather at a country house in the wake of a tragedy - writer-director Guillaume Canet has wrought a meandering script that exercises everything except restraint. Damned if Canet doesn't seem as self-indulgent as his navel-gazing characters.
But before the whimpering comes the bang. The opening sequence is by far the most gripping in the film. A chic night club in Paris. Hip, handsome, coked-up guy is king of the scene. He leaves on his scooter as the sun rises, the frenzy of the club giving way to the perfect quiet of the streets in the early dawn. Thud, a sickening crash breaks the silence. In the hospital, Lido's beautiful face has morphed into a swollen mess of fractured bones and purple bulges. So much for the tragedy.
Now for the comedy/pathos. His friends come to visit the near-comatose patient. Fear is etched in their eyes but, in the backs of their minds, a more immediate anxiety presses: Will they have to cancel their annual group vacation to Cap Ferret? When the doctors assure them that Lido's prognosis is relatively good, the answer isn't long in coming. They saddle up the SUVs and hit the plage. Yikes, in the backs of our minds, another anxiety presses: Do we really want to know this crowd?
Whatever, Canet is quick to introduce them. Max (François Cluzet) is the patriarch of the bunch, a bit older and a lot richer and the fellow who, along with his long-suffering wife, presides over the rambling beach house. Vincent (Benoît Magimel) is married with two young kids and a rather odd secret. In the first of the movie's many confessions, he tells Max: "I love your hands. I'm not gay, it's just you. I think I love you." The beloved, like us, is taken aback by this outburst. Complications ensue.
We also meet Eric the TV actor (Gilles Lellouche), a good-time fellow with a severe case of commitment-phobia. As for Antoine the lovelorn (Laurent Lafitte), he suffers from the opposite problem, carrying a torch for a woman who carries a torch for someone else. Then there's Marie (Marion Cotillard), nominally Lido's girlfriend but apparently quite democratic in her affections - she does sleep around.
As they collect at the Cape, the farcical begins to mingle with the confessional. Turns out, for example, that Max is one of those perpetually uptight hosts, forever angsting about the state of the lawn or the condition of the boat or, especially, those literal weasels scratching around somewhere in the attic. Of course, the symbolic weasels in the mental attics - yes, the many little white lies scurrying about - are just as problematic. Some get tracked down, others stay hidden; all prove endlessly fascinating to the assembled but, alas, not to us.
Certainly, the ensemble acting is first-rate and, at his best, Canet captures something of the group dynamic familiar to anyone who's braved a congested vacation - all the hard work that goes into having fun, the knots of cantankerousness that weave through the tapestry of high spirits. And, inevitably, Lido and his fate hover over the proceedings like the presence of an absence - rarely spoken of, just another guilty twinge for the narcissists to endure.
Yet how it does go on. People come, people leave, they bicker, they make up, the jilted reconcile, the reconciled separate, with occasional pauses en route to accommodate musical interludes from the likes of the Band and Janis Joplin - the American rock score sounds strangely incongruous in such a very French flick. So the hours drag by, but then the resolution arrives with unseemly haste, almost as if Canet, weary of swatting all these prevaricating mosquitoes, just wants to quit the extended vacation and make a fast dash home. We sympathize, deeply.
Little White Lies
- Directed and written by Guillaume Canet
- Starring François Cluzet, Marion Cotillard, Benoit Magimel
- Classification: 14A