Review: Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs)

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The Pitch: The One Where They’re All French And On Holiday.

The Review: Ensemble comedy dramas have been around since almost the dawn of film itself, but there’s one thing that they’ve all had to live in the shadow of for the last fifteen years, and it’s something that grew on the small screen rather than the big one. I refer, of course, to the comedy behemoth that was Friends, which with its ten years of episodic set-ups and lead characters that, on their own, were arch stereotypes but collectively formed a clique that most of the English speaking world seemed to fall in love with. During that ten years, though, Friends ran through almost every possible scenario that six friends could get up to. South Park once had an entire episode revolving around the fact that The Simpsons had mined every possible plotline and left nothing new for its competitors to explore, and at face value this is the equivalent of the two episodes in Friends where everyone went on a beach holiday.

So the challenge for director Guillaume Camet is what he can bring to the genre that’s fresh or original. Certainly the opening sequence is a little more hedonistic than any of the Friends was ever allowed to be, and the opening credits play out over a fantastic tracking shot with a cinematic pay-off.  From there the stakes are raised a little, as a hospital visit requires some tough decisions to be made; two weeks’ holiday or four, for example? It’s less a patient in a bed and more the elephant in the room as the absence of one of the group due to the opening accident casts a shadow over events, but not one that detains the friends for too long. The other major factor casting an omnipresent shadow is a conversation at dinner between Max (François Cluzet) and Vincent (Benoît Magimel), when Vincent struggles to express his more unusual feelings for Max and typically tries to express them before he’s resolved them himself. As it’s Max whose hosting their summer get-together, tensions are bound to run high.

For the majority of the rest of that running time, though, it does become indistinguishable from a French friends. Effectively a series of comic and dramatic vignettes, the passing of each night and day signals a new escapade that the varied characters end up in, each one pretty much defined by a single personality characteristic to help keep them separate. If that sounds a lot like a certain sitcom, then there’s another reason for mentioning it – Little White Lies is 154 minutes long, or the exact equivalent of watching seven episodes of Friends back to back without commercials. You’d expect a lot to be packed into that running time and you’d be right, but the consequence is that none of the stories moves along at much of a pace, and only Marion Cotillard as the pot-smoking bisexual gets called on to do much in the way of proper acting during the majority of the running time. (And yes, the reaction of most of the male characters to the revelation of her sapphic leanings is very reminiscent of one Joey Tribbiani.) Cluzet probably has the most fun of the group, getting to work through his anger management issues and tossing out pithy asides.

But there is more depth here than a TV sitcom, and in the final half hour set-ups pay off and elephants in rooms make themselves resolutely heard. So this holiday is worth taking for the eventual emotional journeys of the characters, but it’s also worth taking because it’s quite a lot of fun for the most part. While certainly a little overlong, the length doesn’t detract too much and  the story arcs do all (eventually) pay off. Camet always keeps things visually interesting and gets the most out of his characters, it’s all generally undemanding and the best bet is to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. You might not want to spend ten years in their company, but these friends are well worth two and a half hours of your time.

Why see it at the cinema: Plenty of gorgeous French scenery, a fair few decent laughs and you might just need one of those literal mouchoirs (handkerchiefs) by the end. What more could you want?

The Score: 8/10

Review: Cave Of Forgotten Dreams 3D

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The Pitch: Lions and tigers and bears… in a 30,000 year old cave painting? Oh my.

The Review: It would be fair to say that Werner Herzog has always operated a little off the beaten track as far as the mainstream is concerned, although with films including Grizzly Man and his Bad Lieutenant remake in recent years his output is as high a quality now as it’s ever been. True to form, his latest effort is a documentary on a cave system in southern France, discovered less than 20 years ago and home to what are the oldest known cave paintings in the world; not only the oldest, in fact, but pre-dating all other known artworks of a similar nature by the order of millennia.

At face value it sounds fascinating, but the first challenge is how to translate a set of essentially static artworks in a static environment into a living, breathing film. Herzog has made a choice which may not have been available to him even a few years ago, to film in 3D, but this of course presents its own logistical challenges. The fact that Herzog also had barely twenty hours, over the course of a week, due to the need to maintain the delicate climate also added its own layer of challenge, and the director makes a virtue of these obstacles, breaking down the fourth wall and using the challenges to help structure much of the narrative.

More of that structure is given by the context of the images. Using interviews with the scientists who have spent much of the last two decades attempting to unlock the secrets of the cave, the film explores the historical context of the images and tries to understand the mindset of the artists who took to painting the cave. This is also a leaping off point to explore other aspects of the cave, from the fate of its various users and inhabitants (as indicated by their scattered and calcified remains) to the other cultural forces, including music, which were part of the various time periods. This succeeds in painting a rich tapestry, if you’ll pardon the pun, and gives so much more context to the images. Herzog is not averse to a little philosophical musing, either, and the eerie and very vocal soundtrack to much of the film helps to give mood to what could have been a very stilted topic.

Of course, where Werner Herzog is concerned, nothing is as simple as just showing some images and adding some context, so whether it be an “experimental archaeologist” playing a national anthem on an old bone, a man attempting to kill an imaginary horse or a surreal postscript in the shadow of a nearby nuclear reactor, there’s always a bit of oddness around the next corner if things become a little too predictable. But the star of the documentary is undoubtedly the caves, and despite the cramped surroundings and restricted filming techniques, the caves are given enough time to speak for themselves, and never once is any depiction of what’s in the cave anything less than fascinating.

Why see it at the cinema: Herzog makes the most of the open spaces outside as well as inside the cave, giving a real sense of scale and depth, and the gentle humour that Herzog draws out at certain points will work best seen with plenty of company.

Why see it in 3D: By Herzog’s own admission, 3D felt the only way to sensibly convey the textures and the atmosphere of the caves to the viewer. It works spectacularly well, and I’d go as far as to say it’s the best use of the 3D medium I’ve seen yet. James Cameron, eat your heart out.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Leaving (Partir)

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The Pitch: Parting isn’t such sweet sorrow…

The Review: Kristin Scott Thomas has become the embodiment of refinement in the eyes of many English people, no doubt thanks to roles in movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient and Gosford Park. However, by her own admission she considers herself more French than English, holding dual nationality and having lived in France since the age of 19. She’s also managed to carve out an equally impressive career in French movies, and the latest to wash up on these shores is on the surface a simple tale of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage and looking for excitement.

It runs the risk of cliché, but taking up with the hired help in this situation is entirely logical. Kristin’s English background is also mirrored in that of her character, but in this case it helps to reinforce the status of her character Suzanne’s slight isolation and her differentiation from her family. Her lover, Ivan (played by Sergi Lopez, best known for Pan’s Labyrinth to English audiences) also draws on his real life Catalan background and the two outsiders are drawn together believably by circumstance and attraction.

Not that you would think it to look at her, but Kristin turned 50 this year; this enables her to bring her wealth of life experience to her characterisation of Suzanne, but she has no fear in the role, either physically or emotionally. Raw emotions are on display from all the characters, and as events conspire to make life more difficult for the lovers, all of the main characters get a chance to show some range.

Director and co-writer Catherine Corsini allows her characters to dominate the screen, but never resorts to flashy touches. As such, the story progresses in a very linear manner, and the narrative choice to start with a brief scene and then flash back to tell the body of the story tries to add ambiguity but by the climax has only served to signpost where things are headed. Nevertheless, for those looking for a little more passion in their domestic dramas, they could do worse than stop off at this French outpost.

Why see it at the cinema: The French and Spanish scenery gets shown off to best effect on the big screen, but it also allows the larger emotions to have room to breathe.

The Score: 7/10

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