Every summer, a couple hosts a gathering of friends for a birthday bash at their beautiful beach house. This year one of their friends has just been badly injured in a motorcycle accident, yet the group still goes ahead with their seaside plans, a decision which sparks tension amongst the protagonists with relationships and friendships put to the test.

The anti-Big Chill.

Little White Lies, the new comedy from French writer-director Guillaume Canet (Tell No One), is about what happens when a bunch of pals get together for a holiday in the sun. They eat nice meals, they talk – a lot – and sometimes wonder out loud why they are not having as much fun as they should be, or used to. They engage in water sports and attempt to partake in sex. Still, any kind of romantic contact here is fraught and freighted with a casual acceptance of the fact that such encounters are fated as melancholy expressions of larger, weightier things. Or to put it another way, sex here is a past-time, a diversion, a testimony to all the bad life choices one can make"¦ as opposed to a celebration of love and belonging, perhaps? Sounds miserable, right? But one of the joys of this wry and rather funny movie is the way it can move into angsty territory and keep the mood bouyant.

The friends in Little White Lies also fight. They fight about bad habits and new revelations, old times and long held grievances. A lot of the time they don’t seem like pals at all.

The title suggests that this is a satire; its target appears to be the privileged class of 30 something’s who know the price of everything but the value of nothing... that is, until it’s too late. Canet sees them corrupted by a self-centred lifestyle of pure hedonism and career choices where the self-absorbed are rewarded as ambitious go-getters. As individuals they seem too full of fear to really open up to themselves, their lovers and each other.

The cast is heavy with big names in current French cinema: Marion Cotillard, Francois Cluzet, Benoit Magimel. And for a lot of critics this lot behave like a bunch of spoilt brats. But Canet doesn’t indulge them, even if he’s squeezing cruel laughs out of their bad manners. Nor, as in so many local and Hollywood comedies, are we invited to cheer on their dodgy ethics. Indeed, the film’s very premise sets up an uneasy chill, and lays out an ironic and quietly savage tone that never lets up. After all, this is a movie where a bunch of friends still go off on holiday after one of their pals Ludo (Jean Dujardin) is pan-caked and nearly killed in a horrendous traffic accident after spending a big night of partying.

Shocked and stunned by this turn of events, Ludo’s friends momentarily wonder whether they should stay bedside at the hospital"¦ before electing that they can’t do much other than sit around and hope for the best so they troop off to a beach resort, hours from Paris.

Their host is Max (Cluzet), whose fits of ill temper are hilarious symphonies of impotent rage. Part of what is keeping Max on edge is that married chiropractor and best friend Vincent (Magimel) has declared that he has cultivated a powerful physical attraction for him, which mortifies Max, a dedicated homophobe. Marie (Cotillard) is quietly grieving for Ludo and tries to smoke off the tension with a lot of dope shared with a few stray lovers. Meanwhile, Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), both recent romantic casualties, drive each other and everyone else in the holiday group crazy as only the recently rejected can.

Little White Lies is two and half hours long. The decision to play out the action at this length has been condemned by some reviewers as a self-indulgent folly. But Canet’s strategy to let long passages of the film glide by, where nothing seems to happen, is both smart and courageous.

Films these days are supposed to give up their plots quickly in deference to an audience impatient and unwilling to yield to the delicate intricacies and pleasures to be found in mood and atmosphere. Canet carefully uses his screentime to set up tensions within the group; one moment the friends (and us) are grooving on the good vibes only for them to be suddenly swept away in a fit of temper or a bad memory that can no longer be suppressed.

Canet’s film has been compared, derogatively, to The Big Chill (1983), but that seems to me to be a cheap shot, since any similarity is really quite superficial. Still, I suspect Canet’s use of familiar tunes like Motown jukebox hits on the soundtrack is a tweak at Kasdan’s popular favourite. In essence Little White Lies is the anti-Big Chill. The American film was a celebration of group-think, idealism, good old times. Canet’s movie is more troubled, cooler, perhaps even a little bitter. It ends in a blush of melodrama that’s like a great purging of bad-feeling. By movies end there’s no escaping the feeling that these friends never really knew each other at all.

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2 hours 34 min
In Cinemas 16 June 2011,
Thu, 10/20/2011 - 11