Little White Lies

June 24, 2011
Little White Lies
Little White Lies

From the first frame we are plunged into the loud, lurid bacchanalia of a Parisian nightclub. Ludo (Jean Dujardin) is stumbling across the floor, smashed on booze and coke. Finally, he decides to call it a night. Out the door, onto his motorbike, puttering away down the long, lonely avenues of early morning. We watch him drive off into the distance in one extended shot – abruptly terminated when a truck arrives from stage left and creams him.

This sudden, shocking act of violence sets the scene for a further two and a half hours in which virtually nothing happens. For the viewer, it takes about an hour to realise there will be no more speeding trucks, no axe murders, no car chases, fires, floods or earthquakes.

It is a tribute to the skills of writer/director, Guillaume Canet, that Little White Lies holds our attention from first to last. Had this been a Hollywood production it would have been only half as long. It would also have been a lesser film. We need that time to get to know the characters, who represent different varieties of middle-aged angst.

A group of friends gather around Ludo’s bedside in the intensive care ward. It looks like Ludo won’t be coming on the annual excursion to Max’s holiday home in Cape Ferret, but is that any reason for everybody else to miss out? After a brief discussion of pros and cons they decide to take the holiday, reasoning that Ludo will barely be conscious for the next two weeks, and there’s nothing they can do.

To make matters more complicated, Vincent (Benoit Magimel), a physiotherapist, has just confessed his love for Max (Francois Cluzet), a hard-bitten hotelier. Since they are both family men this sets Max swaying violently on an already unstable axis. The confession and its angry rebuttal will cast a shadow over the holiday.

Among the other friends there is Eric (Gilles Lellouche), a part-time actor and full-time womaniser; Marie (Marion Cotillard), an ethnologist who blends promiscuity with the inability to sustain relationships; Antoine, (Laurent Lafitte), who seems to do nothing but moan about his absent girlfirend; and an ensemble of partners, friends and acquaintances who become surprisingly well-rounded characters.

The “little white lies” of the title are the many tiny acts of deception the characters practise on each other, and on themselves. The original French title – Les Petits Mouchoirs – may have had limited box office appeal if translated literally. Would you be racing to see a film called Small Handkerchiefs?

The obvious model for this movie is Laurence Kasdan’s famous buddy film, The Big Chill. Put a group of late 30s, middle-class friends in a house together, and watch the relationships become progressively more tangled. Yet a true “friendship” film – the term Canet prefers – must not be too maudlin, as it requires a high degree of empathy from its audience. Such a film may be cathartic, but never depressing. There has to be comedy as well as tragedy, shared pleasures to balance the soul-searching. Ingmar Bergman never made a buddy film.

Canet borrows Kasdan’s device of interspersing the story with popular songs intended to set our heart-strings twanging. In this case the soundtrack includes Creedence Clearwater, The Band, David Bowie, Nina Simone, Anthony and the Johnsons, Janis Joplin, and even ‘Hang on Sloopy’! If there was a hidden logic in this selection it escaped me.

Many viewers will find it hard to identify with these characters because their bouts of self-pity fit so awkwardly with the lives they lead. Their holiday idyll is all surf, sun, fine food and wine. When they’re not partying in Cape Ferret they live in Paris. What’s there to complain about?

The friends shuffle from days on Max’s boat to gargantuan feasts at home, but even in the midst of so much material abundance Canet manages to keep us focused on the psychology. These people may be suffering from the bourgeois blues, but their feelings are sharply focused, brought to life by fine acting and crisp dialogue.

Their friendship is almost orgiastic, as they never stop hugging and kissing each other. We know the French are passionate people, but after a week in each other’s company surely they might settle for a nod at the breakfast table.

This long but watchable tale takes a predictable course, but it hardly matters, as the narrative is carried by characterisation not plot. Ludo is the absent centre of the group, the catalyst who usually brings everyone together. He is missed by his buddies, who feel a shared guilt as he lies in a hospital bed five hundred kilometres away. The name “Ludo” suggests “play”, and it is the spirit of playfulness that deserts the group, as they start to take a serious look at their lives. In what amounts to a second coming-of-age they reflect on the way their selfish and hedonistic habits must give way to something deeper. We’ve heard this story many times, but it always has that painful ring of truth.

France. Rated MA. 154 minutes.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 11, 2011