Thursday, August 23, 2012

LITTLE WHITE LIES: Guillaume Canet's ensemble follow-up to Tell No One opens

Good actor, yes. Smart director, absolutely. But accomplished screenwriter? Not yet, I'm afraid. Guillaume Canet, one of the most popular actors in France and the filmmaker responsible for the international hit thriller Tell No One and the very funny, quirky, and intelligent comedy satire Whatever You Say has come a cropper with his latest offering, LITTLE WHITE LIES. Not that there isn't plenty to admire in this ensemble piece about a band of successful French 30-somethings (with their leaders a decade or so older) spending time together at the beach and summer home of one of their wealthier members. But most of the admiration goes to the performances of the actors -- all of which are expert and riveting.

M. Canet, shown at left, had some writing help with his earlier two films: Philippe Lefebvre on both, and Harlan Coben upon whose novel of the same name Tell No One was based. With Little White Lies, Canet's gone solo, and it shows. From the very construction of his movie right through to the finale, which flails and then fails, due to the weakness of this construction, it is becomes more and more clear that a key element is missing. That element is the movie's pivotal character, played by Jean Dujardin, whom we see at the film's beginning, slightly, and only cursorily from then on. And yet, at the climax, it becomes clear that he is, in a sense, key to the entire movie -- at least so far as his compatriots on view are concerned. Well, sorry: As the song says, Jean-ny, I hardly knew ye.

Let me say that it is a pleasure to finally see M. Dujardin, shown at right, actually "acting" beyond the quotation marks. For foreign film-loving Americans, at least, our only opportunity to see this actor has been in the OSS movies and then in his (perhaps a tad premature) "Oscar" winning role. Both these characters have had him acting in quotes, as it were, in performances that demanded a kind of built-in comment on the actual performance underneath (if this makes any sense to you). Dujardin does this kind of thing very well indeed, but how I finally longed to see him simply act in a more everyday sort of role. Now, we finally can. Except that he's barely there -- before he's not. (But first he's in some heavy-duty prosthetics and make-up that may put you in mind of Lon Chaney's peak years.)

What makes Little White Lies worth seeing (and it is, for those who enjoy French cinema) are its many fine performances within its starry ensemble cast. This includes Benoît Magimel (at left), as a chiropractor whose declaration of feelings for one of the group sets off a kind of slow-simmering fuse during this summer vacation, while calling into question what sexuality is all about and what it means to realize, later in life than is often experienced, that you are very attracted to someone of your own sex.

Marion Cotillard (above) and Gilles Lellouche (below, right) are two actors we're seeing more often of late, and both do themselves proud in their roles here, as friends with love problems of their own. How they handle them makes for fun, sadness and eventually a certain degree of self-realization.

In the film's perhaps central role (not pivotal in the way the Dujardin's is, however) we have François Cluzet, below, whom M. Canet in Tell No One helped set back on a path to lasting stardom. I've never seen Cluzet less than terrific, and he comes through once again as a powerful man who's used to having his own way and can get pretty nasty when things go wrong. During this particular vacation things go very wrong.

An actor that I have not much noticed until now, Laurent Lafitte, below, makes quite an impression as the lovesick dolt who must share every unexceptional moment of that sickness with all of his friends. Lafitte is very funny, with just enough of hangdog pout to make you care for him a bit (he's cute, too, with a tall, rangy body, and Meditteranean dark eyes and full lips).

Ms Cotillard gets the most attention of any of the women (well, she is Canet's companion), but the others here -- Valérie Bonneton, Pascale Arbillot, Anne Marivin and Louise Monot (shown three photos above, with Lellouch) -- are also quite good.  (Canet writes some excellent dialog that his cast goes after like hungry dogs.)

A kind of caretaker of the group -- he's older, wiser, too -- is played, and very well, by Joël Dupuch, above. This actor is the one saddled with "the big speech" -- an opportunity that underscores the fact that Canet does not quite yet understand that movies list toward the "show" rather than the "tell." Instead, the screenwriter has Dupuch spelling everything out for his little group: who they are, what they've been doing and why it's so wrong. Lesson learned!

This dressing-down of course leads to the film's finale, in which speeches are made and tears shed profusely -- all of which left this viewer, at least, utterly dry-eyed. It's way too much and it goes on for an unconscionable length of time. (The movie itself is two hours and 34 minutes long -- overkill for this genre by any standard.) And yet there are a lot of laughs, pain and tears here that are both enjoyable and believable. So I guess we must take the good with the not-so. On his next project, now in post-production, Canet is collaborating again on his screenplay -- this time with no less than James Gray. We look forward.

Meanwhile Little White Lies, from MPI Pictures, opens tomorrow, Friday, August 24, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles at The Landmark -- with other cities in the offing, I hope (though I can't find any trace of them on the MPI site).

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