Little White Lies’s first five or six minutes offer two equally unlikable interpretations of adulthood: one dark and relentless, the other milquetoast-y and piecemeal. In the ominously unbroken opening shot, an obnoxious, coked-up club hopper (Jean Dujardin) leaves an underground party and speeds off on his motorcycle through a gray-skied, predawn Paris; eventually he ignores one red light too many and collides with a trailer truck that appears, from the camera’s judiciously low vantage point, like a monolith on wheels. But the next scene delicately breaks with this stylized fatalism, introducing the hedonist’s close friends with medium, eye-level shot/reverse-shots as they gather by his hospital bed in tight, nurse-approved bunches. After a kind of democratic process mirrored by the camera’s egalitarian pans and dollies, the friends further decide that their fallen brother won’t keep them from their planned coastal vacation; though unspoken, a fear of remaining in Paris and at his damaged side permeates the logic of this plebiscite, as though the act would require each member of the group to confront his or her own self-destructive streak. They depart without him for the seaside, where restaurateur Max (François Cluzet) accommodates the entourage of husbands, wives, and children with his large summer home.
The dualism apparent even photographically in this prologue clues us into Little White Lies’s key behavioral dichotomy: irresponsible passion and outer destruction versus stultifying “maturity” and inner destruction. It’s no spoiler to say that the tenuous convalescence of Dujardin’s character becomes a time bomb ready to detonate whenever the holidayers are ready for catharsis. But his bruised and broken fate seems damn near preferable to the repressive rhythms of his cohort—all of whom could be mistaken for family until they start to seduce one another clumsily.
In the most representative subplot, Vincent (Benoît Magimel), a married chiropractor, reveals to Max—his son’s godfather—that he’s attracted to him sexually; Max’s initial disgust fades to tolerance until he notices Vincent ogling him during a lawn workout. Other characters, like the raucous, often pajama-panted Marie (Marion Cotillard), are trying desperately to get out of relationships in which they can’t invest themselves; still more are vying with equal desperation for the attention of past lovers. In the intimate summerhouse, these personal grievances catalyze a cycle of conflict and non-resolution, whereby problems arise one by one and build to conservative, unimaginative peaks before moving on. (Climaxes involve such transformative violence as wine glass-smashing, face-slapping, and lovesick, Stanley Kowalski-style shouting between cobbled streets and balconies.)
The specific narrative handicaps throughout are mostly too banal to warrant exegesis, though the choice of vintage pop tunes for dramatic underscoring is particularly grating. (One can’t get much more generic than “The Weight.”) But in broad terms, writer-director Guillaume Canet doesn’t pepper his script with enough backstory for us to discern why, precisely, his characters grope at one another so myopically; they’re instead robotically upholding the fictional tradition of well-bred, bourgeois professionals whose finery induces emotional indigestion. (In one scene, a man sniffs a cheap inflatable raft before entering a boat shop, claiming to have fond memories associated with the plastic aroma; like a middle-class Charles Kane, he’s nostalgic for the time before his toys ballooned into failed suburban empires.)
Toward the film’s end, a relative outsider to the plot accuses the ensemble’s members of lying to themselves, thus the title, but given the endlessly confessional dialogue, this didactic scolding doesn’t ring at all true. These individuals are, rather, excruciatingly honest about their shameful desires; their overwhelming selfishness, however, doesn’t allow their intermittent candor to have any effect on their misery. The movie’s obligatorily funereal denouement ironically seems to clinch their stasis, and to prove to us how little they’ve changed. Transition just isn’t possible through the choice Canet offers them between suicidal exuberance and petulant staidness.