In 2006, Guillaume Canet took the world by storm with his astoundingly successful thriller, Tell No One. This sophomore film by the young director introduced not only himself, but modern French cinema to a much wider audience. As such the film’s popularity (both critically and financially) led many critics to predict a ‘new wave’ of the French nouvelle vague to resurge upon our shores – which to an extent it did with films such as, Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Mesrine and I’ve Loved You So Long all faring relatively well. Canet’s much anticipated follow up, Little White Lies was the second highest grossing film in France last year (Only just behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Yet with its tremendously inward looking and nationalistic blend of comedy and drama, will this charming expose of the laboured friendship of eight wealthy friends resonate with the same widespread success over here or remain one strictly for British Francophiles?
We join these carefree socialites just days before departing on one of their ritual summer vacations. But when a sudden horrific traffic accident lands one of their party in intensive care (Ludo) they find their plans have to be reassessed. As he fights for his life, his friends have a seemingly difficult decision to make. Do they stay and watch over their seriously ill friend, or instead leave him, and go ahead with their original plans anyway? They soon convince themselves that by cutting short their break by a couple of weeks, they’ll be able to get the much needed rest they feel they deserve, whilst being back in time to tend to Ludo once he regains consciousness. It’s a choice that many would frown upon, and as events unfold, it would appear they’d be correct. This decision soon becomes a classic example of ‘an elephant in the room’ as it slowly starts to over-shadow any enjoyment that is to be had, gradually illuminating the Little White Lies that threaten to tear apart the fragile fibres holding the group together.
The holiday is funded by Max (Francois Cluzet), something of an older brother figure to the group, who allows his younger acquaintances to gallivant around his opulent beach house, eat from his bountiful fridge, and take trips into town on his lavish power boat. It all sounds rather generous, until you realise he seizes any opportunity to make this fact abundantly clear to the eternal teenagers he chooses to mingle with. It’s at these strikingly charmless moments that we begin to realise that this high strung restaurant owner is purely obsessed with material wealth, and masks his egotistical desire to be respected with hand-outs and charity.
Also amongst this selection of the crème-de-la-crème of French acting talent we have Marie (played by recent Hollywood leading lady, and Guillaume Canet’s wife, Marion Cotillard), a pot smoking, heavy drinking, self-proclaimed ethnologist, whose penchant to study others is no more than an attempt to prevent studying herself. She’s a perfect example of the emotional damage which can be caused by continually putting off tomorrow.
Next there’s Eric (Gilles Lellouche), a failing actor who softens the crippling effects of his faltering career by pursuing a life of infidelity. Yet, when his girlfriend breaks up with him after her attempts to garnish a little more commitment from him fail, he struggles to truly convey his heartbreak, instead hiding behind the same persona he has created to mask his other numerous shortcomings…
What unravels is a thoughtful, unashamedly sentimental and genuine film about friendships and family ties. This seemingly cluttered cast, at first, look like nothing more than superficial, pretentious clichés of the modern French bourgeoisie society. An example of those who have disregarded their traditional family values in favour of a lifestyle fuelled solely by desires of the flesh and an apparent need to escape the hardships of life through a state of constant inebriation. Yet, somehow, despite the apparent detached moods of each character, director Guillaume Canet manages to shine a light on the inner beauty inside all of them. This is achieved through a subtle use of elegantly framed and perfectly timed close ups, combined with some incredibly evocative and sincere dialogue.
The pivotal and shrewd role of Jean-Louis (the oyster farmer) should also not be forgotten. He is more than just a periphery character, but instead an important voice of reason and statue of moral purity with which to both judge, and then lead the group to redemption. He is our window into this world of opulence, like an ambassador for many of us viewing who fail to feel sorry for these spoilt, immature and quite abhorrently melodramatic characters. It’s partly down to the inclusion of this divisive role that makes Canet sprawling character drama a successful searching piece of film, which, regardless of class or age, takes you on a journey to the extremes of human emotions.
There’s an obvious nod towards films such as The Big Chill, Mes Meilleurs Copains and Un Elephant ca Tromp Enormement, but Canet openly admits these sources of inspiration, and has stated that he was always attempting to make a “friends movie.” His achievement in creating some of the most magnificently realistic looking friendships to ever grace the big screen is worthy of the highest praise. Apparently this feat was produced by insisting that all cast members spend two weeks prior to filming at the cabin the film was to be shot. He wanted them to learn each other’s mannerisms, as well as seemingly minute details, like where the knives and forks were kept. It clearly works, and at no point should you ever feel like you’re watching actors ‘pretending’ to get along. It’s this natural feeling atmosphere which ensures that the emotive traps set throughout the course of the film are truly effective.
With a runtime of 154 minutes, Little White Lies is perhaps guilty of being a little too self-indulgent. Some of the scenes are strung out far too long, giving the impression that the cast were having far too much fun filming to take into consideration the dwindling attention span of the audience. However, a film with such an extensive list of high profile stars was always going to be accused of either being too long, or guilty of under developing characters. The closing third, unfortunately, does suffer mildly because of this, and as tempers begin to flare and lessons start to be learnt, the impact is slightly diluted – Canet’s lofty ambition to tie up the high volume of loose ends results in an ever so slightly clumsy, and toothless final act.
As with his previous directorial work, Canet also still seems determined to show off his expansive record collection, through a heavy-handed use of non-diegetic sound. It’s used in an attempt to help amplify the feeling of certain scenes, and evoke a stronger emotional reaction than perhaps he feels comfortable achieving through simple dialogue and framing alone. It’s a negative viewpoint that’s incredibly subjective. Depending on your musical tastes, it’ll either come across as ingenious or momentarily cringe worthy. Yet a film built on a strong foundation of meticulous character development, viscerally beautiful cinematography and such rich ideas, as are present here, shouldn’t need such un-subtle devices to enhance the mood of key moments.
Like a modern day sitcom, but without the furious pace and mainstream sensibilities, Little White Lies may lack the thrill a minute, breakneck action of Tell No One, but is certainly no worse a film for it. What could have been a cluttered, pompous mess of a drama is instead an accomplished and immersive (if perhaps overly long) subtle blend of genuinely, laugh out loud comedy and effectively moving tragedy. Little White Lies will ultimately leave you feeling emotionally exhausted by the end – regardless of whether you’re an auteur of French cinema or not.