The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Little White Lies

Written by Douglas Morrey.

Photo from the article Director Guillaume Canet’s previous work, Tell No One (2006), was one of the most successful French films of recent years. That film managed to appeal to the French public through its use of the perennially popular crime thriller genre and its roster of evergreen French actors (François Cluzet, André Dussollier, Jean Rochefort) while also enticing a large international audience by deploying art-cinema superstar Kristin Scott-Thomas and basing its narrative on a novel by the best-selling American author Harlan Coben. There’s no question that Tell No One was generically proficient: the movie had a neat central premise and was efficiently-paced enough to keep viewers interested; but there was always a niggling sense that, aside from his admittedly unfortunate narrative situation (framed for the murder of his wife who had disappeared eight years previously), there wasn’t much reason to sympathise with the film’s thinly-drawn central character. The film’s way out of this predicament was a clumsily schematic opposition between the hero, cast as a paediatrician (and therefore a kind of saint), and the villain, who was revealed as a paedophile (and therefore as close to an embodiment of evil as can be conceived today). Little White Lies has a similar way of cutting corners in order to provide the viewer with what are, ultimately, somewhat facile generic pleasures.

Again, the casting is solid: François Cluzet takes a lead role here too, supported by the familiar faces of French character actors Benoît Magimel, Gilles Lellouche and Jean Dujardin, while the non-French audience will be drawn to Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, fresh from her high-profile but low-reward roles in Public Enemies (2009) and Inception (2010). The generic territory is again familiar from many other French films: a comedy-drama (shading melodrama in places) with an ensemble cast that follows a group of wealthy, cultivated Parisian friends as they discover truths about each other while on holiday. The inconclusive flirtations by the sea are reminiscent of any number of films by the late Éric Rohmer; the comical fallout from confused sexual orientation recalls Cockles and Muscles (2005); while the more serious revelations and confrontations are typical of French family dramas like Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours (2008).


The problem, as I began to suggest in the short review, is that none of the characters really have enough density to retain our sympathy. Max (Cluzet) is chronically uptight: the first thing he does upon arriving at his holiday home is to call the gardener and yell at him about the poorly tended lawn; he then proceeds to order his house-guests around and install a military discipline in the villa, meanwhile waging a one-man crusade against the weasels he suspects are living in the walls. Although this leads to some comical moments, it rather undermines the film’s narrative premise, since it is hard to believe such a short-tempered individual would invite his friends to join him on holiday, or that they would be foolish enough to accept. Certainly it is difficult to give credence to the declaration of Vincent (Magimel) who, despite claiming he has never had feelings for another man, insists he is in love with Max.

Where some characters are one-dimensional (the exasperating Antoine [Laurent Lafitte], forever asking his friends how he should interpret innocent text messages from his ex-girlfriend), others are inconsistent. Eric (Lellouche) displays, in one isolated scene, some of the most lucid self-analysis in the film (as he has no faith in love, he tells Antoine, it reassures Eric to be the one who is always in the wrong and this saves him from getting hurt in relationships), yet throughout the rest of the narrative he comes across as a crude joker, most of whose thinking begins and ends with his crotch.


Marie (Cotillard) is potentially more interesting as a sexually prolific but emotionally cold character, but since the film offers us little more real insight into her interior world than any of the other characters, it is, in the end, difficult to care about her. Meanwhile, the vague titillation of the suggestion that she sleeps with women as well as men comes across less as a complication of her character and more as a desperate attempt by the film to prove its metrosexual credentials while deflecting what would be justifiable accusations of homophobia around the awkwardly-drawn man-crush of the honestly-not-gay Vincent.

Then there are the occasional glimpses into the lives of other characters which are left frustratingly undeveloped. Vincent’s wife Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) suffers silently from her husband’s neglect, her own sexuality reduced to pornographic interactions in internet chatrooms, but without any further psychological depth she becomes a merely pathetic figure. Another marginal character is Jean-Louis (Joël Dupuch), a local oyster farmer and long-time friend of Max. The elliptical evocation of his financial difficulties would seem to imply a half-hearted comment on the loss of traditional artisanal professions in France, but the issue is incongruous with the rest of the film. Jean-Louis nonetheless delivers a climactic speech in which he accuses the Parisians of being petty and selfish and announces the death of Ludo (Dujardin), who has been otherwise largely forgotten; but the authority with which he delivers this speech seems spuriously granted by his regional accent, with its connotations of ‘authenticity’, rather than by any work of character construction during the course of the film.


In other words, the film sets up a number of serious issues but lacks the depth of character necessary to deal with them in a serious register; as a result, it tends to fall back on comedy as its default mode. A good example of this is the moment when Max grounds his boat on a sandbank and finds himself stranded, alone in a confined space with Vincent, for some six hours while they wait for the tide to come back in. The scene is played as farce, with Max’s homosexual panic causing hysterical behaviour - he tries to jump over the side and loses his shorts - but the obvious opportunity for a meaningful confrontation and discussion between the two men is lost. Instead Max insists that Vincent retreat to the far end of the boat and the subsequent edit elides all six hours of their ordeal together, eager to return to the safe comic territory of Max’s absurd crusade against the invisible weasels.

This is not to suggest that there is anything intrinsically wrong with farce, or that it does not have its place in the cinema; but this flippant, goofy tone doesn’t really seem to fit with Canet’s ambitions. For it seems fairly clear, in other parts of the film, that what the director really wants Little White Lies to be is something akin to the great ensemble dramas of Robert Altman. The vintage American cinema of the New Hollywood is strongly present as an influence throughout much of the film. It manifests itself principally in the music, much of which is drawn from 1960s and ‘70s America: not just Nina Simone (doing a version of ‘My Way’, as if the redemptive message weren’t clear enough), but Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Isley Brothers’ ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, the McCoy’s ‘Hang on Sloopy’ and, perhaps most telling of all, ‘The Weight’ by The Band, famously featured on the soundtrack of Easy Rider (1969), the movie that almost single-handedly launched the New Hollywood. There are visual allusions too: Marie, a movie buff, is seen at one moment watching Scarecrow (1973), one of those marvellously unclassifiable cinematic objects that could only have been made in America in the 1970s. One of Gene Hackman’s lines from the film - “I don’t trust anybody; I don’t love anybody” - is heard, off, in a pointed comment on Marie’s character. Meanwhile, back in the more farcical mode, when Max breaks down the wall in his effort to find the phantom weasels, his frenzied “Bonjour!” can’t help but recall Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s-Johnny!” from The Shining (1980).

<i>Scarecrow</i>
Scarecrow
One of the great innovations of the New Hollywood, however, was the way it broke with classical narrative tradition by allowing for open, ambiguous, or unhappy endings. Little White Lies, unfortunately, does not seem to have the courage to do the same, instead concluding its narrative with the reinforcement of the heterosexual couple. The fate of the supremely annoying Antoine is significant here. At the film’s climax, he meets his ex-girlfriend Juliette (Anne Marivin) and tells her he will wait all night in his car outside her building in case she changes her mind about him. Unbelievably, and with no apparent motivation, when morning comes she does just that, getting back together with Antoine and joining the friends for the rest of their holiday. True, Eric fails to reunite with his ex, Léa (Louise Monot), although, when she turns up at Ludo’s funeral at the end of the film, the spectator might be entitled to sense a further glimmer of hope; but in any case, there has been more than one insinuation that Eric and Marie may end up together, especially as Marie is pregnant by the end of the film. It seems, in short, that the film cannot imagine any alternative to the straight couple: the idea that Vincent could actually decide he was gay and leave his wife, or that Marie could continue to live alone but have multiple sexual partners without necessarily being neurotic, do not seem to be possibilities that ever come within the film’s scope. What this demonstrates, I suggest, is that Little White Lies, for all its many plot lines and gear changes, is ultimately a feelgood movie with delusions of grandeur.

This Alternate Take was published on April 30, 2011.

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