The French truly know how to enjoy a vacation, and whatever one has to say about Little White Lies (aka Les Petits Mouchoirs), a comedy-drama written and directed by Guillaume Canet, it certainly makes the lives of its characters look enviable, even when they're having a lousy time. The movie follows a handful of longtime friends as they struggle with relationship problems during a few weeks at the beach in the South of France, and the film unintentionally begs the question: Just how miserable can you be when you're enjoying sand, sea, and perfect weather on the tab of a wealthy friend? The answer is: More so than you'd think, although many folks watching this film would be willing to trade places with these people anyway.
When we meet the ensemble cast of Little White Lies, they're in a hospital waiting room after learning that one of their best friends, Ludo (Jean Dujardin), is in intensive care after a long night of carousing fueled by liquor and cocaine that led to a near-fatal motorcycle accident. The visitors are all upset, but some have a clearer idea than others of how to react to Ludo's situation; we quickly learn this group of pals meet every year for a communal vacation, and there are differences of opinion as to whether they should cancel their month near the ocean or go anyway. It's soon decided that they'll go for two weeks while Ludo heals, and once they're back in Paris, he'll be able to have a real conversation again -- but seems to some like a convenient justification as they abandon a companion in his time of need.
Ludo's condition provides a somber subtext for this fortnight of sun and fun, as nearly everyone is struggling with personal issues. Max (François Cluzet), a successful restaurateur who owns the luxury beach house where the group are staying (and who is paying the room and board), is a bundle of constant tension, and his wife Véronique (Valérie Bonneton) isn't feeling any more content. Marie (Marion Cotillard) is a free-spirited anthropologist and pothead who is struggling with her inability to have a deep, lasting romantic relationship. Eric (Gilles Lellouche) is an actor whose frequent infidelities are driving a wedge between him and his longtime girlfriend Léa (Louise Monot), who has chosen not to join him on vacation. Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) is being driven to distraction by his feelings for his ex Juliette (Anne Marivin), who is still interested in him but is engaged to another man. And Vincent (Benoit Magimel) has the most complicated problem: His marriage to Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) is slowly crumbling as he loses interest in her, and we find out why when Vincent confesses to Max that he's become attracted to him sexually and wants Max to reconsider the nature of their friendship. Max, whose reaction suggests a certain degree of homophobia, becomes even more edgy as he tries to avoid an old friend who is living under his roof for two weeks.
Little White Lies is a rather oddly balanced blend of comedy and drama, and considering how deep its themes go, the comedy is often surprisingly blunt and broad: Director Canet calls on dropped pants, seasickness, and people falling off a boat to generate big laughs in between rounds of introspection and heartache. The picture plays like a Gallic version of The Big Chill, only without that film's overlay of generational malaise; in addition, the soundtrack to Little White Lies is similarly dominated by pop tunes from the 1960s and early '70s, which seems curious since Canet's characters appear to be in their late thirties and early forties, so these songs were hits before they were born. Also, while the doomed Alex in The Big Chill provided a framework that brought the characters together for a few days, Ludo's troubles in Little White Lies remind us just how shallow and solipsistic these friends can be, creating a distance between the audience and the protagonists (even though Ludo hardly seems more noble than any of his peers). The cast struggle to bring depth and warmth to their characters, and while Marion Cotillard and Benoit Magimel get the meatiest material and deliver the most nuanced performances, by the end of the movie it's hard to understand why anyone would put up with François Cluzet's Max (no matter how nice his house is) or Laurent Lafitte's Antoine (who seems trapped in the deepest pits of emotional adolescence). Christophe Offenstein's cinematography makes the most of the beautiful locations, and Canet's screenplay does offer a few genuinely moving passages, but too much of Little White Lies comes off as a big-budget soap opera with unfulfilled aspirations to be something more, and while you might want a vacation to lean to the long side, Canet's choice to stretch this film to two and a half hours does his cast and narrative no favors.
Perhaps something got lost in the translation (both literal and cultural), but Little White Lies seems to posit that you can't enjoy a few weeks in a French resort town without true love, which practically defines what someone on the Internet has dubbed a "first-world problem."