Le grande chill: Little White Lies **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 22, 2012)

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In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie subgenre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

It’s usually accompanied by a nostalgic soundtrack spotlighting all your favorite hits from the (60s, 70s or 80s). Like any film genre, the entries range from memorable (The Return of the Secaucus 7, The Big Chill) to so-so yet watchable (The Decline of the American Empire) to the downright execrable (last year’s I Melt With You). The latest, Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs) lies somewhere in the middle.

Which is a shame, because writer-director Canet has assembled a fabulous cast; the problem is that somewhere around the 90-minute mark of this 2 ½ hour dramedy, he seems to run out of interesting things for his actors to do or say. It begins intriguingly enough; a happy-go-lucky fellow named Ludo (Jean Dujardin) hops on his motorcycle after a night of drugs and debauchery at a Parisian club, and promptly gets T-boned at an intersection by a truck when he runs a light.

As his friends gather at the ICU, we are introduced to our principal players: Max (Francois Cluzet, star of the director’s terrific 2006 mystery-thriller, Tell No One) and his wife Veronique (Valerie Bonneton), Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), Marie (Marion Cotillard), Vincent (Benoit Magimel) and his wife Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) and Eric (Gilles Lellouche). This unfortunate event has occurred on the eve of an annual vacation getaway for the gang, hosted by well-to-do restaurateur Max and Veronique at their beach house. After a powwow, they decide that while it’s a bummer that Ludo can’t join them, they should nonetheless plow ahead.

As events unfold at the beach, each player shows their colors as an archetype (the free-spirit with commitment issues, the aging Lothario, the recently dumped single carrying the torch, the harried husband, the sexually frustrated wife, the substance abuser, the sexually conflicted character, etc). However, despite a script overstuffed with clichés and stereotypes, the talented and well-directed ensemble shines with genuine chemistry and great performances. The tepid third act deflates most of the dramatic tension with one too many self-pity parties and a subplot that has two characters running around in a sputtering state of gay panic.

Still, there are enough compelling reasons to recommend the film; besides the appealing cast, DP Christophe Offenstein nicely captures the sun-dappled beauty of Gironde’s Atlantic coast, and there’s a well-selected soundtrack ranging from contemporary (The Jets, Damien Rice, Ben Harper) to nostalgic (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, CCR). Singer-songwriter Maxim Nucci (in a small role as Cotillard’s latest boy toy) performs a poignant original called “Talk to Me”. While Canet may not necessarily have anything new to say, he at least talks to us like we’re grownups.

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