Little White Lies Review: Steaming Whopper
In a recent discussion chaired by Intelligence Squared, Werner Herzog cited Marlon Brando’s entrance in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata as an example of the perfect way to immediately establish empathy with a character, someone whom the audience will root for without question.
Whilst the Bavarian filmmaker considers likeability an essential method of sustaining interest, Guillaume Canet, director and part-time national heartthrob, evidently views things differently, launching Little White Lies into orbit with a long take lasting several minutes in which we follow Ludo (Jean Dujardin) sleaze, snort and eventually sneak out of an unbearably hip Parisian nightclub before he’s gratifyingly knocked off his motorbike and hospitalised. In stark contrast to Kazan’s Zapata, Canet appears to willingly encourage his audience to thoroughly despise Ludo, foreshadowing what will constitute the prevailing attitude towards his remaining cast of bourgeois Parisian narcissists.
When Ludo’s friends come to visit him, conversation soon turns to their impending holiday and whether or not it is ethical to leave him behind. Relying on achingly transparent excuses they resolve to go anyway, rationalising that there is in fact very little they can do whilst he’s bedridden. Canet then proceeds to introduce his characters, each successively nastier than the other, though special mention is reserved for Max (Francois Cluzet), a patriarchal figure who manages to outdo everyone in the unpleasantness stakes. Of course, everyone is impossibly glamorous and unfathomably rich; Marie (Marion Cotillard) flits between Paris and the Amazon as a documentary maker (“I taped over 35 hours of ceremonial laments”); Vincent (Benoît Magimel) is a chiropractor with a crush on Max, a wildly successful entrepreneur; Eric (Gilles Lellouche) is an up and coming actor with a fondness for orgies; and on it goes.
Then the holiday begins, grievances and resentments are inevitably aired (Vincent’s recently confessed attraction towards Max providing the central source of discord) and the narrative, as well as characters’ relationships, rapidly fall apart. We’re told, literally via way of a monologue, that it is their propensity to lie to one another that causes disharmony but it is quite clearly their malicious natures which prevent them from making meaningful connections with each other or act in the slightest way honourably.
The greatest cinematic achievements, at least in terms of form, are those that master subtlety, incorporating their devices with upmost discretion, be they editing, lighting or sound; Little White Lies does the opposite, substituting delicacy with broad strokes. By the time Max has asked himself, “Why am I like this?” we neither care nor want to believe in his slowly evolving semblance of regret because no-one has done anything to suggest they will actually change. Instead, they resort to horrid clichés, climbing through the windows of unrequited lovers or cringing public declarations of adoration. To Canet they might be meaningful and heartfelt but to the outsider they come across as troubling psychological disorders.
Bloated like a Richard Curtis film (matching Love, Actually for its protracted running time) with a similar disposition for Magic FM hits, funerals and crass sentimentality, there is hardly a redeeming feature to Little White Lies which never convinces and critically fails to amuse or intrigue. Some viewers driven by schadenfreude might find reasons to persist but the final third ensures even an ironic reading will fail to deliver. Don’t be fooled by its box-office credentials: this is fluff of the highest order and should be avoided accordingly.