A triumph at the French box-office despite the proper lynching it received from home critics, Guillaume Canet’s follow-up to the also-incomprehensible hit Tell No One is the most depressingly Gallic dud I’ve seen in years. Indeed, some have said it’s the defining movie of the Sarkozy era – self-aggrandising, hyperactive, bling bling and shallow.
Just a disclaimer before I go any further: I am a Frog myself, and it’s this kind of cultural export that makes me happy to be an expat. At least it takes a year for the film to get here.
Little White Lies (Les Petits Mouchoirs en Français) portrays a group of long-time friends in their late thirties taking their traditional summer holiday in Cap Ferret (an über-posh peninsula near Bordeaux) despite having one of their own lying on a hospital bed after a horrific road accident. Soon, everyone’s dirty secrets and half-truths resurface as guilt creeps in, triggering a series of hysteric fits and embarrassing revelations. It’s a classic premise for a comedy-drama, seen before in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill: the death of a common friend as catharsis for collective existential crisis. It’s the type of canvas that requires a bit of subtlety from the filmmaker not to turn into a melodramatic cringefest and restraint from the actors not to become an excuse to ham the shit out of the patronising dialogue.
Instead, Canet decided to go for “SIN-CE-RI-TY” (his mantra during promo interviews), refusing to intellectualise his “most personal film to date” (translation: “I’ve been staring at my belly button for the last three years”). He shot on his favourite vacation spot and got his wife (Marion Cotillard, yes) and friends to play the main parts. Oh dear. He also decided not to bother editing: the film clocks in above the two and a half hour mark, while managing the extraordinary feat of feeling static while being all over the place in terms of location, narrative developments and story-arcs. Put simply, it’s a mess. Did I also mention that every single character is either a self-absorbed bobo twat – floppy hair, Lacoste polos and flip flops – with insufferable levels of Frenchness (no one kisses their friends that often) or a loud, hysterical woman?
The film opens with a hilariously arrogant super-long take, Gaspar Noé-style, following Ludo (douchebag no. 1, played by Jean Dujardin, supposedly our modern day Jean-Paul Belmondo) exiting a red-lit nightclub – symbolism!!! – completely wasted, proceeding nevertheless to go home on his scooter, riding carelessly through Paris in the wee hours – feeling of impending doom!!! – before being pulverised on the pavement by the fastest truck that ever crossed the capital. At this point, Guillaume Cannet feels like a garlic-flavoured PT Anderson. Truly, he is just another terribly conservative cineast, multiplying the stabs at being postmodern and in touch with the “youth” (using the word “double penetration” in casual conversation for instance) that make him sound like another awkward dad trying to be cool.
The cast boasts some of France’s biggest names, each operating in their usual register: Cotillard, of course, as the fucked-up girl who’s always cool to be around because she’s got some pot but cries an awful lot (she really got this to an art now, with tears dripping from her nostrils and all); the veteran Francois Cluzet, turning his regular shift as the over stressed middle-aged bourgeois and Benoit Magimel as a sexually confused physiotherapist, doing his repressed-pretty-boy thing all over again. There are other familiar faces rehashing the usual stereotypes – the primitive Latin lover; the tight-ass Parisian wife; the rustic, broad shouldered mussel cultivator (what?) – but I’ll stop here before I get too incensed.
More than the musical postcards of seaside bliss (the market, the beach, the boat trip) that will make you sick of guitar ballads for the rest of the year, or the fact that the funny bits are depressing and the sad bits funny, what made me really angry is the list of pseudo-profound life lessons Canet is ramming down our throats: friendship is sacred / being gay is okay / you can find yourself away from the city where people have REAL VALUES / tend to the ill, don’t go on holiday when your mate is dying / cheating on your girlfriend is mean / etc… Deep, important stuff. Thanks, dear namesake, for your infinite wisdom, these were points that really needed to be made.
Spending holidays between friends can easily turn out to be a bad idea :”hell is other people”, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre famously. Looking at this bunch though, I can’t help but feel they deserve each other – tagging along is just masochistic perversity.