In 2006, the actor Guillaume Canet scored a big hit with his debut feature as a director, Tell No One, a high concept thriller based on Harlan Coben's novel. I wasn’t as fond of Tell No One as many people seemed to be, but the movie was a model of efficiency compared to Canet’s latest effort, Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs), a painfully inept re-lay-shun-ship drama that focuses on a fraught summer vacation undertaken by a group of thirtysomething pals. The holiday, spent at the property of Max (Tell No One’s Francois Cluzet, miscast, and giving an atypically forced and unconvincing performance here), is a yearly ritual for the group - and they’re not dissuaded from it by the fact that, this year, one of their number, Ludo (Jean Dujardin, pre-Artist eminence) is languishing in hospital following a serious motorbike accident. Over the course of the summer, tensions surface and relationships get reassessed as the deceptions and half-truths upon which the group's friendship is based are gradually revealed.
Mostly, in his approach to the scenes, Canet seems to be going for free-wheeling spontaneity of the Christophe Honoré variety in Little White Lies. But his work as both writer and director here exudes insecurity. The interactions feel mostly fake, the relationships underwritten, and the script keeps resorting to contrived dilemmas. Will Marion Cottilard’s sad-eyed rebel Marie abandon her promiscuous ways and find the “courage” to commit? Will Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) succeed in winning back their partners? Will married osteopath Vincent (Benoit Magimal) regret confessing his man-crush on his (increasingly unhinged) host? And, most pressingly, will Canet stop using montages scored to an entirely random selection of songs to fill up the movie? (Spoiler: he doesn't.)
There are scattered effective moments, the best of which is a poignant - if familiar - sequence that captures the group watching home movie footage of Ludo. But by the time Canet starts hammering home moral platitudes (delivered in the form of a minor character’s self-righteous admonishment to the friends for their selfishness) the movie has lost any good-will that you may have had towards it, while its glutinous finale earns not a jot of honest emotion. And never has a soundtrack so full of great songs - The Band’s “The Weight,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” Antony and the Johnson’s “Fistful of Love,” Nina Simone’s version of “My Way” - made me cringe as much as this one: Canet employs the tracks so randomly and indiscriminately that it sounds like his iPod got stuck on shuffle. Is Canet doing it his way - or just any old way? On the evidence of Little White Lies, it would appear to be the latter.