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French import Little White Lies works better as a travelogue than a drama, and I found myself checking Expedia for tickets to beautiful Cap Ferret in southwest France. Like an afternoon on a sun-drenched beach, Little White Lies is warm, relaxing and a bit boozy. The cast is stocked with France's best actors, and Guillaume Canet directs with similar skill but less urgency than he did with Tell No One. A group of adult friends goes to the cape for a two-week vacation soon after their most jovial companion is badly injured in a moped wreck. Tension is high from the start, and strained personal relationships spill out of the bedroom for collective judgment. Comparisons to The Big Chill are inevitable, from the classic pop soundtrack to the casual melodrama, but Little White Lies is distinctively French with its red wine and sunshine amicability. There's much to admire and enjoy here, but the film ultimately tests both patience and plausibility with its bloated running and incessant human crises.
Canet opens the film with a jittery, unbroken sequence in which recent Oscar winner Jean Dujardin takes cocaine in a crowded club bathroom, then retreats to the dance floor to kiss a buddy's girlfriend before taking off on his moped into the Paris dawn. Dujardin's brief presence as Ludo anchors the film, and his friends debate but decide against cancelling their annual vacation. Americans may not be familiar with the concept, but many Europeans get several weeks off from work in the summer. François Cluzet heads the pack as high-strung Max, who offers up his vacation home but obsesses over the lawn and his cigarette boat. Also invited are moody, love-starved Marie (Marion Cotillard); sexually frustrated Vincent (Benoît Magimel); hot-tempered Éric (Gilles Lellouche); and nice-guy Antoine (Laurent Lafitte). Max and Vincent are both married with kids, but Vincent shocks Max by revealing shortly before the trip that he is sexually attracted to Max, which sends Max deeper into his confused, manic state. At the coast, the friends drink wine, bond over failed relationships and deal in half truths.
If you haven't already guessed, Little White Lies is a film more concerned with mood and its amicable, communal vibe than narrative. Sure, things happen, but each detour into one friend's love life or career troubles mirrors another, and before long Little White Lies resembles a breezy soap opera. That's not necessarily a bad thing; particularly when you consider how talented and watchable these actors are. Their characters vary in likeability: Max becomes grating after his tenth tantrum, which is misdirected at Vincent's young son, and Max's wife (Valérie Bonneton) seethes over his behavior. Marie is all over the place, shifting from bohemian beauty to lovesick harpy depending on the scene. The guys goad her anger, too, and in one unnecessary scene Marie shrieks at them from the water when Max won't lower his boat's ladder. Éric and Antoine share a hasty trip to Paris, where each man makes his case for forgiveness to a scorned lover, and these men are the most grounded of the bunch.
Canet, who proved a master of mood, pacing and intrigue in Tell No One, one of my favorite thrillers, again captures plenty of intimate character moments. The actors expertly feign intimate familiarity with one another, and you'd be forgiven for thinking Canet simply filmed a group of real friends on vacation. The cinematography, from Christophe Offenstein, is beautiful but understated, and Canet's script is often warm, funny and authentic. For long stretches of Little White Lies, I just enjoyed sitting at dinner with Canet's characters and words. Some conflicts are innocuous, others are humdrum, and a few are compelling, particularly the prickly Max/Vincent dynamic that simmers into a family-room showdown late in the film. Canet infuses the film with typical French sensibilities about love and friendship, and the film is less cynical than an American version would be. This talky, relaxed structure is effective to a point, but grows tiresome in a film that clocks in at 154 minutes. Perhaps Canet had trouble cutting his own material, but a good tightening would have heightened the overall impact.
As an ensemble drama, Little White Lies is variably affecting, but the scenery fills in some of the dramatic gaps. The soundtrack is pervasive, but some of the 60's and 70's tunes feel out of place. And Canet might have chosen another track from Creedence Clearwater Revival's arsenal than the overused "Fortunate Son." I wanted to love Little White Lies but, by the teary, extended finale, came away merely liking it. When a film is this bloated, some of the material is bound to be forgettable. Like the characters' sunset fruits de mer dinner, an extra course sometimes sours the overall experience.
The 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image supports the sunny cinematography with excellent detail and clarity. Shot on 35 mm, Little White Lies appears filmic, with a nice grain structure that is actually a bit thick during nighttime scenes. Colors are warm but well saturated, and skin tones are natural. Wide shots of the cape are gorgeous, with excellent depth and sharpness, and close-ups reveal minute details of the sun-tanned faces. There are no problems with edge enhancement or compression artifacts.
The French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is crisp and clean, with good dialogue separation and clarity. Most of the action comes from the front and center, but the surrounds are used for ambience such as the chatter of a nightclub or waves at the beach. The extensive soundtrack is supported by balanced, weighty delivery and LFE assistance. A French 2.0 LPCM mix is also included, and subtitle options include English SDH and Spanish.
There's only a brief featurette, Behind the Scenes (8:43/SD), with a few cast and crew interviews and location footage, and the film's trailer (1:57/HD).
I really wanted to love Little White Lies, with its talented French cast and skilled director, Guillaume Canet. But, like overindulging in a delicious meal, too much of a good thing sours the experience. A French The Big Chill of sorts, Little White Lies travels to beautiful Cap Ferret, where several adult friends dissect their lives and relationships with the recent moped accident of a friend fresh in their minds. The scenery is beautiful, the performances strong, and the drama often affecting, but Little White Lies grows tedious as it nears its conclusion. But, for fans of Canet and French cinema, Little White Lies is still Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.