Movie review: Les Petits Mouchoirs (Little White Lies)

When Les Petits Mouchoirs ended I was surprised, nostalgic and reflective. I was surprised because the ending was unexpected; nostalgic because it reminded me of my college days; and reflective because I was questioning the translation of the title of the movie: “Little White Lies.” To be semantically correct, I don’t think the film is about lies, but rather secrets and, specifically, what we keep from our close friends and loved ones and who we trust to tell what. Now, that does beg the question: what is the difference between a lie, a secret, and honesty in general, but that’s a separate discussion.

Les Petits Mouchoirs is a 2010 French film that was released internationally in 2011. The movie was directed by Guillaume Canet (Last Night, also a good film) and features an ensemble cast that includes notably, Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception) and François Cluzet (Prêt-à-Porter, French Kiss). The fact that I don’t mention the other actors here in no way detracts from their performances. The entire cast so embodied their roles that, for me, they did what I expect good actors to do; make me forget that I am watching a fictional movie.

a scene from les petits mouchoirsThe movie opens on a man, Ludo, played by Jean Dujardin (The Artist), in a nightclub, clearly enjoying the scene. He flirts and makes lecherous advances at the women as he passes by, but it’s clear that he is known and liked. He spends a few loud almost unintelligible minutes with a friend and his girlfriend and here, is when we get a first glimpse into his character. After being introduced to his friend’s girlfriend – for the first time – he proceeds to kiss her, passionately, in front of his friend and you are immediately torn in your impression of him. Something in the simple, though passionate, act of kissing the woman seemed innocent – no offense intended – while simultaneously being obviously very inappropriate. Shortly thereafter, however, he decides to leave in the wee hours of the morning and, as he’s leaving, he is approached and spoken to by many, it’s subtly established that he is known and liked.

It is here that the story picks up pace because, as he is riding his scooter through the near empty streets of early Paris, he is hit by a truck and, amazingly, lands in the hospital, alive. I say amazingly because the impact of the crash was so forceful that I actually screamed from the violence and unexpectedness of it.

As he lays in the hospital, his closest circle of friends come to visit and it’s here that we meet Ludo’s lover Marie, Antoine, Max and his wife Véro, Vincent and his wife Isabelle, and Éric and his girlfriend Lea. After visiting Ludo in the intensive care unit of the hospital, it is revealed that the entire group was set to take their annual summer vacation to Bordeaux imminently. Due to Ludo’s accident, however, the friends discuss whether it is appropriate to leave him alone in the hospital in Paris or go on their vacation. The general consensus is that they can’t do anything for him, he’s laying in the intensive care unit and he can’t recognize any of them anyway and so, they may as well go on their vacation. In deference to the situation though, they agree to go earlier and stay for less time.

For the next two hours, we watch the subtly of the characters’ interactions as we see what they choose to reveal, to whom and how. Many plot points are revealed simply by a look or a gesture and the non-verbal communication in the movie was, at times, laugh out loud funny as well as moving.

Antoine, played by Laurent Lafitte, is perhaps the most annoying character, albeit the most honest. He’s broken up with his girlfriend of 11 years and sees no reason not to remind everyone, at every opportunity, that 1) they’ve broken up; 2) he misses her and, 3) he wants to reconcile. As a matter of fact, his is the first line after the tragic car accident, in the elevator, on the way to the intensive care unit: “Do you know if Juliette will be coming?” Little do you realize then that Juliette and what she is and will be doing is central to everything that Antoine thinks, says and does. There is no other way to say it than: he’s a wuss. He’s a cookie cutter version of what mass media tell women they want: tall, dark, handsome, caring, thoughtful, dedicated, in touch with his softer side and, willing to work to make the relationship work. In short, he’s exasperating and the other characters tell him so, often. The redeeming nature of his honesty is a contrast to the others, as Antoine is an open, yet annoying, book.

The great benefactor of the film is Max, played by François Cluzet, who, from the telling, is a self-made man who finances the group’s yearly vacation to Bordeaux in that he provides the lodging and transportation while they are there. Max appears to have taken it upon himself to accommodate everyone and he organizes and provides everything the group needs. In short, he’s a control freak on a very short string. And, to our amusement, his string is broken irretrievably and completely by Vincent, played by Benoît Magimel. Vincent and Max have been friends for 15 years and, depending on how you choose to view the relationship, they have either a brother/brother or father/son relationship. Shortly after the accident but before the group departs on vacation, Vincent seeks Max’s confidence and counsel and provides the first big reveal of the movie and, it is shocking. (I still giggle when I think of it.) And, it throws Max off kilter for the remainder of the movie.

Marie, played by Marion Cotillard, has a truly interesting role. She is Ludo’s (the friend in the hospital) lover although we soon learn that she has a lesbian lover, which again manages to confuse poor Max. She has a sexual relationship with a guy whenever she needs him, whom she unceremoniously kicks out of her apartment when she’s through with him on the premise that she prefers to watch her movies alone because she’s just not that kind of a girl. I actually felt sorry for the poor guy as he was being hustled out the door. And then, while they are in Bordeaux another lover arrives, a musician, this time completely unexpected and uninvited, because he just wanted to see her. The next morning, though, he breaks up with her as he acknowledges that their relationship will not go to the next level despite having been together for six months. Her character’s reveal at the end is nothing short of perplexing.

Éric, played by Gilles Lellouche, is easy to understand. He’s the consummate ladies’ man who flirts with every woman he sees and does the leaving before he gets left. In true movie playboy fashion, he is left and then has his requisite 11th hour epiphany, goes to try and win her back only to realize that it’s already too late. Éric, to my mind, is the only character for whom the title actually applies. He lies repeatedly, although it is mostly to protect himself.

Again, the movie revolves just as much around the lies/secrets that are told as the internal motivations that drive each character’s behavior. For me, the beauty of Les Petit Mouchoirs was like peeling the petals off a beautiful flower. With each reveal you were left with more questions and yet, caring about each character even more.

The numerous subplots round out the broader story, show the complex relationships amongst the couples and add greater texture to the overall story while exploring: what is friendship; what are the limits of friendship and how can they carry us during difficult times.

One of the most questionable elements of the movies is how, although Ludo is mentioned and remembered while they are on vacation, with the exception of Marie who calls him and Eric who visits him, the friends do not follow up to find out how he is recovering. Which begs the question: how strong is your friendship if, after such a horrible accident, you can go on vacation and leave your friend alone? Shouldn’t the bonds of friendship demand more of you in such a situation?

I will not share how the movie ends but, I will admit that it was, for me, unexpected and yet, satisfying. I like when movies do not end with all the loose ends tied together in a neat little bow. Increasingly, movies, thank goodness, are not predictable, and this movie does not disappoint in that regard.

The journey that this film takes you on through friendship, commitment and honesty is entertaining without being preachy. Yes, there is the requisite conversation on honesty and the little white lies we tell others in an attempt to continue lying to ourselves but the conversation comes from such an unexpected quarter that it takes a moment of contemplation to digest what happened and internalise the message it’s intended to impart.

2 replies on “Movie review: Les Petits Mouchoirs (Little White Lies)”

Actually, you’re right.  Mouchoirs  does mean handkerchief and is colloquially used to mean tissues.  The english translation of the title given was Little White Lies which I think accurately reflects what the film is about.  That said, one interpretation of the french title could be the idea of the fabric of our lives and what knits or brings us together.  It may be a stretch but yes, the literal translation of small handkerchiefs or little tissues does sound odd but, I’m not French so I may just not get it.  :)

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