LITTLE WHITE LIES (2010, directed by Guillaume Canet, 154 minutes, France)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Taking four years to follow-up his international hit thriller Tell No One, director Guillaume Canet has brought us Little White Lies, a very French concoction that seems eager to make some concessions to an American audience. Dubbed “a French Big Chill” for its reliance on 1960s rock and soul oldies, the comparison favors the indestructible quality of the French film industry, which even with audience-friendly product like this, shows a sophistication of which Hollywood can still only dream.
With an ensemble cast made up of the stars of some of France’s most successful recent imports, Little White Lies has a set-up that goes back at least as far as Renoir’s seminal Rules of the Game: a rag-tag bunch of friends gather for a holiday in the country. Their loose-cannon friend Ludo (star of The Artist, Jean Dujardin) is critically-injured in a motorcycle crash, but that doesn’t stop his gathered friends from taking their seaside vacation together with their financially-successful, internally-troubled friend Max (François Cluzet of Tell No One and the recent hit Intouchables.) Max drives everyone crazy because he can’t relax, but he’s also unnerved when his married friend Vincent (Benoît Magimel of The Piano Teacher) has confided he is physically-attracted to him. Along for the vacation is Marion Cotillard of The Dark Knight Rises as the aloof Marie, trailed by the perfect man to whom she can’t commit.
Also thrown into the mix are a rising actor (Gilles Lellouche) and a lovelorn fool (Larent Lafitte), both in the process of losing women, as well as a couple of long-suffering wives and small children, who scurry around the edges of the drama like little mice. With an over two-and-a-half-hour running time, there is plenty of space for each actor to create a character of depth who we can easily imagine existing outside the confines of the film frame. Some have complained that the characters here are not especially likable, but that might be the cost of accurately portraying contemporary people that are distracted and self-absorbed Yet as we slowly become more entwined in their worlds, you can’t help but appreciate the French film industry as a whole, whose steady commitment to craft has given this incredible cast of actors the sort of well-written dramas in which to refine their skills. There’s a surprisingly grande boat stunt that takes place and while the production never feels under-produced, it is because of the uniformly wonderful performances from this first-rate cast that such a small, dialogue-driven film like this can seem so full and rich.
As the film reveals the little white lies of it’s title, those self-delusions our friends help to facilitate, the film is also a bit too satisfied with the little cinematic lies of group hugs and soaring, emotionally-leading music cues. If that’s the price Little White Lies has to pay to drag in American audiences to its ever-so-French charms, c’est la vie.
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Nothing more perfectly illustrates why film critics so effusively praise French film than the new Hollywood melodrama The Words. If Little White Lies is a product that signifies the health of the French film industry, than The Words, whose writer/directors Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal recently contributed to the script of Tron: Legacy, demonstrates the sad state of craft in your average Hollywood drama. The film’s multiple plot-lines splash around energetically between cliché, improbability and pretentious mindlessness, with every insight offered about writing in itself a badly-written and mainly false conceit (Really, has any writer ever thrown their typewriter across the room in frustration?) The film is the product of two writers, writing the story of three writers each writing their own stories, and the directors use these three threads to exponentially demonstrate their failure at the form from multiple angles. The Words isn’t just bad, it is bad cubed.
Bradley Cooper is Rory, a frustrated but talented (?) writer who is exhausting hope that he might ever be successful. When his endlessly supportive and endlessly beautiful wife (played by Zoe Saldana) buys him an ancient valise in Paris, he discovers a yellowed manuscript in its inner lining. So brilliant is its prose (represented by some horrible pseudo-Hemingway passages), Rory impulsively types the novel into his computer to examine its brilliance. Rory’s wife finds the story and and mistakes it for his, and when she makes love to him with a renewed fervor, Rory finds it impossible to fess up. She urges Rory to submit the book, which becomes a phenomenon, transforming Rory into a literary superstar. But after a seemingly-random meeting in Central Park with an ominous old man (an aged-up Jeremy Irons) it appears Rory’s ruse might come crashing down.
And did I mention Rory’s tale is actually the creation of Dennis Quaid’s character Clay Hammond, who in framing sequences is shown reading from his story at a book store, and later defending Rory’s actions while been seduced by a lusty co-ed? Only a fool would write a story creating three writers and their three fictions without some master plan on interweaving the stories so their ideas and meaning would intersect and inform each other. I guess you would make that two fools, as Klugman and Sternthal spin back and forth with little rhyme or reason, awarding a particularly maudlin story of lost love and dying babies to Jeremy Irons for his purported masterpiece. Having people struck speechless by the idiotic story’s purported profundity sets the snarky inner-self searching for other inanities, and boy does the search hit pay dirt.
Profoundly horrible films like this are terrible to the bitter end, and The Words labors strenuously to close its story on a moral conundrum where there isn’t one. The only question left hanging is how good sense failed to succeed at any juncture in the film’s making, not even by accident. Truly, The Words fail me.