Le Big Chill, by Tyler Smith
A young man has a terrible accident that lands him in the hospital. His lifelong friends gather around him in support, but they don’t let his condition ruin their vacation plans. Every year, this group stays in a lakeside cottage, and this year will be no different. After all, there’s really nothing they can do for their friend anyway, right? Why not go for a couple weeks, then check on him when they get back?
However, as they try to relax in this seemingly peaceful environment, the small rifts in their relationships start to become apparent. Words are exchanged, secrets are exposed, and lies are told. All to classic American songs of the 1960s.
So, let’s see here. An ensemble comedy/drama that kicks off with a tragedy. All the characters are stuck in one place. American classic rock. Hm. This sounds familiar.
Ah, yes. Now I remember. This is the exact description of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, the Oscar-nominated film that is now almost 30 years old. Why on earth would I be talking about that movie?
The reason is that Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies borrows so generously from Kasdan’s modern classic. They share so much, in fact, that I wonder why Canet thought his film needed to be made. His characters, while interesting, are not so unusual that the film’s existence is justified. The story is perfectly fine and the film adequately made, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “What exactly does this film think it is doing that so many films haven’t done before?”
Nonetheless, once you get past the obvious echoes of a movie that has not, to my knowledge, gone out of the public consciousness, you get a pretty simple little film about characters that are, by and large, relatable and realistic. I really got a strong sense of the relationships and feel as though these are people that truly have known each other for at least ten years.
That more than anything is what Little White Lies has going for it. Canet’s willingness to take his time and let the smaller moments play out really conveys the history of these people. And, what’s even more notable, is that we really feel the absence of Ludo, the friend in the hospital. This is strange, because we haven’t seen him interact with these people before; we can only imagine it. But the awkward exchanges and the uncomfortable silences speak volumes about what role this man played within this group. You get the feeling that you know exactly where and when he would speak up.
A film like this is always a showcase for solid acting, and there are plenty of great performances here. Marion Cotillard reminds us that she has the uncanny ability to seem both strong and deeply vulnerable at the same time; not an easy thing to do. Gilles Lellouche conveys a deep melancholy underneath a confident and carefree exterior. Joel Dupuch has a sweet sadness to his lovelorn character; a wounded puppy dog glued to his phone, waiting for his ex-girlfriend to respond to his texts.
Perhaps the two most interesting characters in the film are Max and Vincent. Played by Francois Cluzet and Benoit Magimel, respectively, Max and Vincent’s relationship is the most intriguing in the film, and sometimes the most frustrating. Both of these men are married with children, yet Vincent declares his love and longing for Max before they go on the vacation. Max is taken aback and doesn’t know how to respond. Both men agree to set it aside, but find that they cannot.
What makes this particular storyline so alternately compelling and frustrating is Canet’s inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to decide on what tone he wants to strike. Max’s homophobia is often played for laughs, as he keeps finding himself alone with Vincent, fumbling for what to say to diffuse the discomfort. In this way, their awkward relationship seems like the stuff of light comedy. However, there are moments when Canet chooses to emphasize Vincent’s vulnerability and Max’s panic is portrayed as cold and hurtful.
This jarring shift in tone makes me wonder what the director was trying to do here. It is very clear that his sympathy is more with Vincent than Max, but I find myself wondering what exactly he expected Max to do. Does the director think that it would be best for Max to ditch his wife and kids and run off with Vincent? And if we are meant to condemn Max’s attitudes, why are we so often made to laugh at them? While I understand that making something ridiculous can be the best way to criticize it, Vincent’s genuine sadness makes the whole approach seem crass somehow. Both Francois Cluzet and Benoit Magimel manage to take these tonal contradictions and forge them into believable, mostly sympathetic characters, but I feel like they would have been helped considerably along the way had the director simply decided what exactly he was trying to accomplish with this relationship.
But, then, the same could be said of the whole film. It’s a pleasant enough affair, and we do feel like we connect with these characters. But the whole thing seems so non-essential. Guillaume Canet is clearly trying to do something, but never quite seems to know what. And by evoking the much better and more focused Big Chill, the only thing that Canet can be said to have truly achieved is to make me wish I was watching that film instead of this one.