It would take an exceptional film to make up for the chaos before Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Roy Thomson Hall’s projector could not carry the subtitled version and so most attendees walked over to Scotiabank Theatre for a more intimate screening and Q&A session. If you ever want your faith in humanity’s goodwill challenged then watch 500 angry TIFF ticket holders storm a cineplex. It reminded me of the wildebeast scene from The Lion King.
Thankfully Guillaume Canet‘s (Tell No One/Ne le dis à personne) tragicomedy was fine enough to merit the wait and interesting enough for the hassle. Inspired by the sprawling ensemble narratives of films like The Big Chill, actor-turned-director Canet explores the bonds and tensions between a group of old friends on vacation. One of them (Jean Dujardin as Ludo) is semi-comatose in Paris because of a motorcycle accident. The slow-burning guilt they feel for abandoning him becomes a subtle catalyst for coming to terms with their own problems.
Les petits mouchoirs benefits from being packed full of French acting talent. François Cluzet, lead from Ne le dis à personne, is Max, the richest of the bunch and hosts the vacation from his cottage on the beaches of Lège-Cap-Feret. Vincent (a sincere performance by Benoît Magimel) confesses his homoerotic feelings to Max while insisting he’s “not gay”. Cluzet’s growing look of alarm in that scene is classic. His Max firmly believes himself to be a victim of misfortune, a host-as-martyr who wants his guests to feel bad for mooching off his money.
Also in the mix is a woman drawing closer to becoming the best actress of her generation with every role. Mastering each small gesture and glance, Marion Cotillard commands the screen as volatile Marie, Ludo’s former lover. Great acting, she proves, is all in the details: a hand repositioning itself over a mouth, a stare held for one second too long. She is dogged by best friend Éric, Gilles Lelouche as a wild libertarian who wants to sleep with her. “If we fuck, then what?” asks Marie while smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Éric smiles mischievously and raises his eyebrows.
It is sly moments like these that are bread and butter in a film obsessed with friendship and its limits. Juggling multi-stranded plots is never easy, and Canet can not keep every ball in the air. The awkwardness between Max and Vincent is mostly passed off for laughs and only in one incendiary scene is treated with gravity. Other threads are packaged too nicely. Antoine (a childish Laurent Lafitte) pines for Juliette (Louise Monot), a long-term love on the verge of marrying another man. He drives to her door and gives her the night to decide her man. Guess what happens the following morning when Antoine is just about to drive away. This feels more Hollywood rom com than French relationship film. Unfortunately Clanet tends to let his actors talk for too long and then checks his watch, sweats, and stamps on a resolution.
As for the final conclusion, Canet is content to leave a few things hanging. There are tears (lots of them), reconciliation, remorse, and a bittersweet tone that is perfect the difficulties of friendship. Whether conscious or not, the decision to leave some loose ends could be a sign of maturity. Despite all their issues, these companions could leave us with a group hug even if their travails linger on our minds.
Little White Lies played at Roy Thomson Hall Saturday September 11th. It also plays 10am September 13th and 2:45 pm Saturday September 18th at Scotiabank Theatre.