Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs) (Director: Guillaume Canet): Let’s get this out of the way first. Nobody does character-driven summer vacation dramas like the French. Whether it was Eric Rohmer in the 80s with films like Pauline at the Beach and Le rayon vert, or more recently, Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) or his wife Mia Hansen-Love (The Father of My Children), nobody can surpass their ability to assemble a cast and create fleshed-out characters dealing with existential and relationship crises during what is supposed to be “free” time for relaxing with friends and family.
Which means I shouldn’t be surprised that Guillaume Canet’s film is so absorbing. And yet it’s that sense of (re)discovery that makes this such a pleasure to watch. It’s definitely because I don’t see enough films like this and in fact I’m probably in danger of overpraising Little White Lies, but when French directors like Canet can create this sort of grown-up and layered character piece and make it look so effortless, it’s hard not to be dazzled.
The film begins with another dazzling sequence, a long and technically difficult tracking shot that sets up the rest of the film. After establishing his bona fides as a director of complicated camera work, Canet quickly settles down to a less showy style in order to focus on his ensemble of characters and the relationships between them.
As their friend Ludo lies in hospital, seriously injured in a traffic accident, the rest of his friends debate whether to go on their scheduled month-long holiday without him. They decide to go for just two weeks, vowing to return immediately should anything happen to their friend.
It’s a motley crew, mostly in their 30s, except for Max, a successful hotelier in his 50s. We know nothing about how these friends came to know each other, only that they are very close, vacationing together year after year at Max’s summer house near Bordeaux. No one else is as financially successful as Max, and his ongoing generosity doesn’t come without a certain amount of tension.
There’s another kind of tension between him and Vincent. The young osteopath has recently confessed his love for the older man, despite the fact that both are married with children. Max’s generally stressed-out demeanour is cranked right up by this news and their previously close friendship is strained to the breaking point, which cannot go unnoticed by their wives and friends.
The slightly goofy Antoine is nursing a broken heart, and an obsession with his ex, who maddeningly keeps texting him. Eric the bad boy is taking his gorgeous girlfriend Lea for granted by sleeping around. Vincent’s wife Isabelle is unfulfilled (understandably, as it turns out) and sad when nobody is looking. Most enigmatic of all is Marie (the magnetic Marion Cotillard), Ludo’s ex-girlfriend who is unable to move on, even when her new lover, a handsome musician, turns up unannounced.
It’s all a bit overstuffed, actually, and the film runs a very long 154 minutes. But the actors are such a joy to watch. From the first frame, the characters and their relationships feel lived-in, and watching this group interact will make you forget you’re watching a film. There are moments of humour, often bordering on the slapstick, but by the end, the film turns sombre. Time passes, things change, relationships don’t last or they mutate, hidden things can’t stay hidden and people can’t keep lying to each other and to themselves. It’s heavy stuff, and that’s even without the emotional pummelling that the film’s final half-hour delivers. But what a joy to see professionals inhabiting their roles so completely.
Despite a few other reservations (the “wise rural type” character felt a bit shopworn, and I’d have liked a bit more of a window into Max and Vincent’s relationships with their wives), Little White Lies impressed, interested, and finally moved me. Comparisons have been made to The Big Chill and with its soundtrack of American music and similar themes, the comparison is fair. But I prefer the French seaside and this group of self-obsessed and yet sympathetic characters. They aren’t failed revolutionaries or idealists from the 1960s. They’re just flawed people muddling through life and all the changes that life throws at them. And it’s beautiful and heartbreaking to watch.