The American stereotype of French films is that of a string of conversations, languidly paced, with little plot connecting them apart from the troubled relationships and intersecting desires of idle, upper-middle-class characters. People smoke, stare thoughtfully off-camera, and talk at cross-purposes. Perhaps we have Eric Rohmer to thank for the people who think, “Nothing ever happens in French movies!” As if close examination of relationships and human behavior were nothing.
Little White Lies, released two years ago in France but only now gracing American screens, consists of a string of conversations, languidly paced, with little plot connecting them apart from the troubled relationships and intersecting desires of idle, upper-middle-class characters. In other words, it does absolutely nothing to dispel these stereotypes. But it also adds a healthy dose of egotism and solipsism; the total effect is that of a Rohmer film mixed with The Big Chill.
The first character we meet is Ludo, played by Jean Dujardin. Dujardin made a strong impression (and won an Oscar) for playing debonair George Valentin in last year’s The Artist; his Ludo is a drug-addled playboy, and given little to do before being plowed over by a truck during the opening credits sequence. Subsequently, he makes only fleeting appearances (though, in one brief scene, he does imitate Bonnie Tyler, which may be enough to recommend the film on its own).
We meet the rest of the unbelievably attractive cast of Little White Lies as they visit him in the ICU: there is Marie, played by Marion Cotillard (who vastly improves any movie merely by appearing in it) as a reflective woman that old-timers might refer to as a “free spirit.” Francois Cluzet, currently appearing on American screens in The Intouchables, plays Max, a neurotic and excitable businessman. Benoit Magimel, best known as the student in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste, plays Max’s osteopath Vincent—an easygoing but slightly sullen man with marriage troubles. Two other friends, both in varying stages of lovesickness, complete the group.
Every year, Ludo and the others vacation at Max’s beach house in Southeastern France. There is a brief debate about whether or not to attend this year; everyone feels bad about poor Ludo, of course, but he hasn’t even regained consciousness yet, so what is there to do for him? They decide to vacation anyway, but cut it short—giving Ludo enough time to recover will also give them enough time to enjoy themselves before having to return to Paris and resume their working lives.
After these initial scenes, writer/director Guillaume Canet doesn’t involve these people in much of a plot. But the pleasing thing about films like Little White Lies is that lack of a strong narrative gives these characters breathing room—we get to hear naturalistic conversation instead of perfunctory dialogue delivered only as a means of plot advancement. Personalities and relationships unfold novelistically, so that words and glances delivered early in the film—especially in the first hour—are given new and deeper shades of meaning once the context changes. And Canet has assembled a remarkably talented cast; the actors are fascinating to watch even when what they’re saying or doing isn’t of much interest.
Luckily, much of the screenplay is interesting. Canet especially uses double entendre to great effect. After awkwardly confessing his bromantic attraction to Max, Vincent visits him to apologize. Max is quite on edge, having just had a fight with a designer who works for him. “I need a new architect!” he exclaims to Vincent. “No one gives it to me up the ass!” Indeed not; the exclamation is for two sets of ears.
And it’s not as though nothing happens. Max grows increasingly agitated the gayer he thinks Vincent is acting towards him. A musician ex-boyfriend of Marie shows up and entertains everyone, except her, with his guitar. Max wages war with weasels he thinks are creeping into the walls of his room. Two characters take a brief detour back to Paris to loudly pine for lost loves. The group watches a video from years past—including a rousing rendition of “Holding Out for a Hero,” performed by Ludo in fake boobs and a blond wig.
These subtleties and character vignettes don’t add up to much, however. There’s as much of a deep, rich window into human nature in Little White Lies as there is in your average Dawson’s Creek episode. (And just as much whining.) The performances of Cluzet, Magimel, and especially Cotillard are what really make the film worth its running time.
Well, almost. About that running time… After 154 minutes of banter, whining, petty dramas, fights, romances, whining, reconciliations, soulful gazes, and a bit more whining, Little White Lies plays like a big-screen French version of thirtysomething—with better acting and production values. It especially evokes a Big Chill-vibe with its repeated use of older American rock and pop songs. Canet’s screenplay tries to tie everything together in the final scenes, but by then, I wasn’t really convinced that any of the characters were capable of long-term change. I think the final tableau is meant to be incredibly moving and poignant, but as the film faded to black I was thinking, Well, what did you guys expect?
Bottom Line: Francophile? Lawrence Kasdan fan? You’ll find much to enjoy here. Others, stay away.