Actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet will be best known to English-speaking audiences for his searing 2006 thriller Tell No One, a work demonstrating Canet’s incredible potential as a dramatist, potential which is regrettably only half-realised in his follow-up feature, Little White Lies. At an inexplicably bloated 154-minutes, Canet seems so high on the gorgeous French vistas and spectacular cast that he has forgotten what it means to editorialise, to move and to entertain all at once. While sporadically entertaining, Canet never achieves a concise style with which to paint his ambitious, sprawling dramedy.
It all begins with one unforgettable shot. A man, Ludo (Jean Dujardin), leaves a party early in the morning, still high on cocaine, and as he drives away, he is struck out of nowhere by a lorry. The seamless nature of the shot and a lack of discernible visual effects boggle the mind – how did they do that?
Importantly this image sticks in the mind more than any other in the film, as Ludo’s accident is the crux around which everything else balances – his hospitalisation brings his friends, sexually confused chiropractor Vincent (Benoit Magimel), grumpy restaranteur Max (Francois Cluzet), hedonistic wild child Marie (Marion Cotillard), promiscuous actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and lovesick, mopey Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), together. However, with a trip to Max’s holiday home already planned, the group briskly decides to leave Ludo alone in the intensive care ward as they venture off to enjoy the sun and, unexpectedly, learn more about each other than they bargained for.
Canet’s second major feature is a sure tragicomedy, melding the expectantly odd, silly style of French humour cineastes have come to expect, with a more downplayed – and at times thoroughly incongruent – bent of seriousness, which frankly uproots the sense of fun and comes off as unnecessary. There’s the distinct feeling that Ludo’s accident could have been excised entirely from the film, for not only would it have made the focus on the poor, poor middle-class types seem less self-indulgent and more giddily care-free, but it would have resulted in the overwrought third act, which desperately tries to tie the dramatic strands together, ceasing to exist almost entirely.
Virtually impossible to discuss without an inevitable comparison to Woody Allen, the film is at times not unlike an epic version of any one of Allen’s works, in as much as it skewers the middle-class big-city neurosis that arises from human relationships, and chiefly, sex. These moments, kept at an arm’s length from the downcast and clumsy Ludo narrative, do evoke some solid laughs – Vincent trying to reconcile his sexual confusion is especially good, chiefly thanks to Cluzet’s incredulous performance as the man who becomes the object of his affection. Marion Cotillard is also a joy to watch as usual; a breath of fresh air who seems confident in what she wants before, naturally, a few spanners are thrown in the works. Problematically, however, while Canet does not want for ambition, he has trained his scope on a surplus target; there is too much to care about, such that even a meaty runtime cannot adequately accommodate these people or get us to like them.
Simply, this is the same interconnecting drama we’ve seen done so many, many times before, just distended out to over two-and-a-half hours. One cannot deny that some of France’s most beautiful sights are gorgeously photographed, though it’s easy to imagine they had a lot more film filming it than the actual production is to watch. After all, who wouldn’t want to shack up at a luxurious holiday resort and get to play with boats for a few weeks? These moments in which the group bond, though perhaps the most genuine and relaxed, are certainly the most ripe for the chop.
From this carefree, even decadent tone, the film simply swerves too abruptly into maudlin sentiment; dialogues backed by pop-songs feel overdone and unnecessary, as though Canet isn’t confident enough in the material to simply display it on its own terms. Poor Ludo, meanwhile, pops up for mere seconds every 25-30 minutes to mug at the camera and remind us that amid all this silliness, there’s serious business at hand too. Though Ludo’s wasting away while the saps enjoy their holiday certainly has a point, it is done too painstakingly with too little regard for a consistent tone. Similarly, the sense of loftiness, of the countless montages cut to contemplative music, needlessly stretch the runtime while giving little more than a shallow, repetitive “insight” into these characters, who are mostly rigid archetypes anyway.
Canet asks us to buy into the toils of people such as Eric and Atoine, whose partners appear on the precipice of leaving them, yet crucially, we rarely see them interact, we rarely glimpse their lover, and so, amid the criss-crossing web of narrative strands, it’s difficult to get emotionally involved. That it often plays these over with treacly pop songs doesn’t help make us sympathise. The end then endeavours to spell out the truth evident from minute one that, yes, everyone lies to everyone else, while finally playing its full dramatic hand in a desperate attempt to make everything come full circle and actually matter, even if it only does so with a crushingly mechanised efficiency.
Not without its moments, but ultimately it’s too much about privileged people and their “problems”. It’s like an overlong Woody Allen film minus the wit and self-aware middle-class mockery.
Little White Lies is released in the U.K. on Friday.