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
The Review: The Cold War has been such effective fodder for the movie industry over the years, it’s maybe a little surprising that there haven’t been more explorations of the latter years of that period on the big screen. As it transpires, there was more than a little French involvement in the events that triggered the fall of the Soviet machine, and so it’s the French that have brought the tale to the cinema, an adaptation of Serguei Kostine’s book Bonjour Farewell, itself inspired by the true events surrounding Vladimir Vetrov, a high ranking KGB official. The movie details the actions of a fictional character, Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), based on Vetrov, and his relationship with a French engineer working in Moscow, Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet).
Gregoriev’s unlikely relationship with Froment is kept secret from Froment’s wife, who fears the potential consequences of such involvement, and seemingly from everyone else in Russia as well. The wealth of important information being passed to Froment has soon given François Mitterand, the then French president, enough leverage to get the attention of his American counterpart, Ronald Reagan. As the secrets mount, Mitterand and Reagan work out how to exploit the relationship to their best advantage, but they are to a certain extent at the mercy of the idealistic Gregoriev, not involved for money or the possibility of defection and so keeping Froment’s involvement to keep the flow of information undiscovered becomes crucial.
The movie by its very nature has a very international cast, with Canet and Kusturica both very effective in their roles, and support from such American luminaries as Fred Ward as Reagan, Willem Dafoe and David Soul portraying the Americans. There’s also a good selection of other international actors with familar faces, including Alexandra Maria Lara as Froment’s wife and Ingebora Dapkunaite as Gregoriev’s. Family tensions on both sides are as much an integral part of the story as the grander political machinations, especially as both men have more to hide at home than they do in their respective spying roles, it would seem. The only slightly false note is Ward as Reagan, who never quite convinces with his impersonation or his acting, but the remainder of the cast are all very solid and help to keep things simmering.
Unfortunately simmering is the tone for most of the movie. There’s a fantastic shot early on when Gregoriev is first revealed in the back of Froment’s car; such moments run the risk of being heavy clichés in movies such as this, but here the direction is wonderfully effective. It’s all the more frustrating that this moment proves to be almost a high point in terms of dramatic tension and direction. Carion, who also co-wrote, may have been a little inhibited by the unwillingness of the Russians to allow filming of a story of such a traitorous figure in their history, but somehow he never gets the movie out of third gear, even at the end when characters have to make their moves. It’s a fascinating historical document and worthy of watching on that basis alone, but it errs slightly too much towards drama when the potential was here for a cracking thriller.
Why see it at the cinema: It feels worthy and weighty enough of the big screen, and there are just a few moments that will be more effective in a darkened cinema.
The Score: 7/10