By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist April 15, 2011 at 2:31AM
The nature of what keeps a long-term friendship together over the years is somewhat ephemeral. There is the trust and confidence that comes with knowing someone intimately, seeing them at their best and worst, and being there for them without judgment. But it's also built on shared values, small moments and significant times shared, building a collective history that binds dates and places with deep emotional resonance. But, everyone also has their secrets, and even the best of friends will often keep their own fears or secret desires to themselves, not only for the sake of a friendship but for their own private reasons as well. Now take all of that and multiply it a few times for a circle of friends, who have know each other for years and are now in their mid-thirties and you enter the world of Guillaume Canet's "Little White Lies," a sprawling dramedy that follows a few weeks in the lives of a close knit group going through some monumental changes.
The film opens in the wee hours of the morning as Ludo (Jean Dujardin) parties with friends at a club and when we meet him he's finished his friend's cocaine and is crossing the line between charming and asshole drunk. He eventually decides to leave and though he could use a couple of pots of coffee to sober up, he gets on his scooter and hits the streets of Paris to head home. The streets are empty, and morning is coming -- it's actually quite lovely at this time of day -- but the idyllic scene doesn't last long as at an intersection, Ludo is blindsided by a truck.
At the hospital, where they have come to check in on Ludo, is where we first meet the cast of characters we will be spending the next two and a half hours with. There's Max (François Cluzet) a successful, but exceedingly stressed out hotelier; Marie (Marion Cotillard), an ethnologist whose relationships never move past the bedroom (and she prefers it that way); Eric (Gilles Lellouche) a small time actor, with a much bigger ego; Vincent (Benoît Magimel) a married massotherapist who has inexplicably fallen in love with his best friend Max; and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), a man still hung up and confused by his ex, who randomly sends him cryptic text messages. Though Ludo is in terrible shape, and is expected to be in intensive care for weeks, after their cursory visits they begin to wonder what to do with the planned annual vacation at Max's beach house in Bordeaux. Finding what they think is a compromise, they decide to cut the vacation in half, do two weeks instead of four, so they can be back to visit with Ludo who won't be able to accept visitors anyway during his early weeks in recovery.
Oh, here's the other key to friendships and why they last so long -- you don't have to live with your friends. But cram everyone together for two weeks face-to-face and lingering resentments, questions and other issues will eventually work their way to the forefront. And it's within this setting that Canet begins to peel away the layers of secrets everyone is hiding from each other. There have been some reviews accusing the film of being yet another rich-white-people-with-problems film, but that really isn't the case here. The problems they're each dealing with in their own way are universal, the kind of struggles many who are groping their way in the midst of adulthood run into.
For Max, he seems to be suffering under the greatest strain. As the most successful among the group, he has paid for their vacations for years but sometimes feels his generosity isn't recognized. Add to that, he's still reeling from Vincent's confession about his feelings toward him and he takes it out in strange ways, with an obsession in keeping every aspect of the vacation home in order from the lawn cutting to getting errant weasels out of the walls. Meanwhile, both Antoine and Eric discover new information about the women in their lives leading to heartbreak and unexpected joy. Marie remains a beautiful enigma for much of the film until the later stages while Vincent tries with great difficulty to put Max out of his mind. To say anything more would ruin the discoveries and that's one of the great joys of the film. Canet's large canvas allows him to casually allow the audience to get to know these characters. The running time of the film isn't such a daunting task because as we become familiar with their stories, we want to know and for the the most part, Canet plays it cool, allowing nuance, subtlety a strong feeling and command of how people actually relate to each other, to let these characters unfold their tales. At least until about the last twenty minutes or so.
While Canet shows so much control for most of the film, the weaknesses displayed briefly here and there -- particularly by the way of overwrought music placement which transmit exactly the emotion we're supposed to be feeling, or a sudden character showing up to serve little more than a plot function -- come racing to the fore as "Little White Lies" wobbles to the finish line. For a film that so admirably and realistically portrayed the richness and complexity -- both good and bad -- of how we relate to the people we love, Canet had no idea how to close the film. So he falls back on a crutch that allows everyone to reunite in one place, with a couple characters giving late stage speeches, with tears shed and strained feelings reconciled. For a film that spent so much time on authenticity, the entire act feels false and a bit cheap after such an investment in seeing how this would play out. Not to mention, that even with all that, some plot threads introduced remain abandoned later on, particularly one involving Vincent's wife who has noticed a growing distance with her husband and has taken to getting her sexual needs fulfilled online.
The ending is too much of a disservice to "Little White Lies" to overlook and it greatly stops the film from begin anything more than a delicious truffle -- a very rich and filling one -- but an inconsequential one as well. However, powered with a soundtrack that includes David Bowie, The Isley Brothers, The Band, Janis Joplin, Gladys Knight & The Pips and more and combined with strong acting across the board, there is still much to recommend about "Little White Lies." It's no surprise the film became a box office sensation in its native France; the characters are a delight to know and the whole movie goes down easy like a cold glass of Chardonnay on a warm summer evening. As far as cinematic vacations go, this one is worth the trip. [B-]
"Little White Lies" opens in Canada and the U.K. today. There is currently no U.S. distributor or release date.