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Les Petits Mouchoirs

September 9, 2012
Les Petits Mouchoirs

There’s something poetic to the French version of the idiom in the title of Les Petits Mouchoirs — subtitled in English as Little White Lies. Taken literally, it’s a handkerchief that covers a blemish, as a white lie covers an ugly truth. And as they get left around without cleaning up the mess underneath there are soon layers and layers of handkerchiefs on top of each other. Unfortunately, the movie itself is more prosaic; there’s a many-layered pile of predictable messes, but nothing ever gets cleaned up.

The action plays out over a vacation taken by a group of friends every year. Normally it’s a month spent at a seaside home owned by the uptight hotelier Max (François Cluzet) and his wife Véro (Valérie Bonneton). They’re cutting it short this year; their friend Ludo (Jean Dujardin) is laid up in intensive care after a motorcycle accident. His visits will be restricted for a while anyway, so they may as well get in half of their vacation and get back to him when he starts to recover. Also staying at the house are Max’ osteopath, Vincent (Benoît Magimel), and his wife, Isa (Benoît Magimel), and their friends, Marie (Marion Cotillard), Éric (Gilles Lellouche), and Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), all of whom have their assorted romantic failings.

Vincent and Isa are drifting apart; she seems to sense that he’s attracted to someone else, but not that it’s actually Max. Of course, Max doesn’t exactly want Vincent’s interest out in the open, so he’s glad to cover this with a metaphorical handkerchief. The other motives are less well explained. Éric is hung up on his girlfriend, Léa (Louise Monot), who is about to leave; Antoine is hung up on his ex-girlfriend, Juliette (Anne Marivin), who is not about to return; Marie is still hung up on Ludo from a long-past relationship, but she makes up for it by not getting hung up in the slightest on any of a stream of lovers.

Of course from our omniscient perspective all this covering-up is clear, and none of it is particularly original. In case the massive and systemic dysfunction among this group isn’t apparent, they throw in Max’ honest, hardworking childhood friend, Jean-Louis (Joël Dupuch), the oyster fisherman who lives near the house. He, too, can see how screwed up these effete Parisians are, and when pushed far enough he can tell them so.

The movie has been described by many as the French version of The Big Chill, but beyond an ensemble cast and some relationship drama triggered — obliquely, here — by a tragedy, it doesn’t really work out. It certainly wants to be The Big Chill, though, down to a soundtrack of blaring American pop from the late ’60s and early ’70s, which — unless there was some sort of revival in France — is about twenty years out of date from these characters.

The ensemble is capable, though. There’s a reason that these actors are well-known names, even internationally. And two and a half hours provide a lot of scenery for them to chew. On the other hand, two and a half hours provide a lot of time for character arcs to develop and for personal growth to occur, and we see all but none of that. Even when we get the idea that one of them has an epiphany, we see little evidence of them acting on it. And after a while watching one lie on top of another gets really boring. Without seeing some of these handkerchiefs start to get cleared away, what’s the point of watching them pile up?

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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