In the new film written and directed by young French actor-turned-filmmaker Guillaume Canet, a group of close friends set out on an annual beach vacation, despite one of the usual posse, Ludo [Jean Dujardin], having been critically injured in a road accident prior to the trip. After going to see Ludo in hospital, where visitation is initially limited, the friends decide to curtail their trip rather than cancel it.

This group of Parisians are full of life and indulgency – in a bourgeois kind of way – but they’re also riddled with either personal issues or hedonistic tendencies.  These problems begin to rear their head in what turns out to be a drama-filled beachside getaway.

Two of the guys on the trip, Éric [Gilles Lellouche] and Antoine [Laurent Lafitte], are experiencing women trouble.  Éric is a bit of a playboy with a beautiful girlfriend (who is due to fly out later in the vacation), but he is fooling around with other women, whilst Antoine has recently split from a long-term relationship and is still hooked up on the ex-girlfriend.

Then there is Victor [Benoît Magimet], a married back specialist who brings his wife Isabelle [Pascale Arbillot] and kids along on the trip, but is in the midst of an identity and sexuality crisis. Isabelle is in denial there is anything wrong. The organiser of the trip is Max [François Cluzet], a successful restaurant owner whose boat and beach house the friends frequent. Despite being married to the slightly down-trodden Véro [Valérie Bonneton] and the godfather to Victor’s children, Max is the route of Victor’s self-questioning.

François Cluzet (star of Canet’s critically acclaimed 2006 hit Tell No One) is fantastic as the anxious, frustrated aging man, who not only seems unable to fully enjoy his fortune and self-imposed hosting duties, but has the added pressure of dealing with Victor’s pre-vacation admission that he feels he might be in love with him. This provides the viewer with several laugh-out-loud moments, including slow-moment scenes of Max playing football as the infatuated Victor looks on and a scene where Max hacks away at a wall with an axe in a furious attack on some pesky weasels that are seemingly terrorising him.

If Cluzet provides the most laughs with his portrayal of awkward fear concerning the situation with Victor and his irrational compulsion for the pernickety, it is the actress of the moment, Marion Cotillard (star of La Via en Rose, Public Enemies and Inception), who excels in evoking fragility and heartfelt vulnerability as the free-loving, free-spirited Marie. She may appear calm amidst calamity, but like most of the characters in the film, Marie’s veiled troubles are close to the surface.

Facades are the overriding theme in Little White Lies and Canet is illustrating the idea that honesty, openness and giving as much as you receive are the noblest virtues in friendship. The friends are lying to each other and themselves. They might be “white lies” or fronts, like defensive mechanisms, but they add up to a wall of pretence serving only to avoid facing up to the important things in life and in the end they harm everyone, including themselves.

After the initial trauma, the film is a slow-burner as the characters are explored and developed and the banter fizzes, then as the friends’ underlying issues become less hidden and the reminder that Ludo is alone in hospital all the way back in Paris lingers, the mood of the film darkens and the characters are stripped bare.

None of the protagonists are truly happy or fulfilled, mainly because they are unwilling to face the real world, and instead they play up to their roles like stereotypes of themselves; the happily married couple; the bohemian; the womanizer etc. As the action heads towards the climax, it is clear that they haven’t faced up to the seriousness of the condition of their deserted friend Ludo.

A moment of clarity comes when local oyster-farmer and father-figure friend, Jean-Louis [Joël Dupuch], berates the group – who are already at breaking-point – and questions why they are there whilst their friend is in hospital (Jean-Louis himself on one day takes time out to drive 500km to visit Ludo), questions their collective friendship and demands they open their eyes to their own lies and naivety.

Some critics have suggested that Canet’s latest feature is slightly overlong and heavy-handed, but the film just feels theatrical, with the characters used for symbolism and dramatic interplay, before a furious and emotional climax, where all issues come to a head in the crescendo. With convincing, heartfelt performances and a great folky soundtrack including cuts ranging from Damien Rice to Janis Joplin, Little White Lies is funny, energetic, bitter and beautiful in equal measures.

Little White Lies (15)
Directed by Guillaume Canet
Starring: François Cluzet, Marion Cotillard, Benoît Magimet, Gilles Lellouche, Jean Dujardin, Laurent Lafitte, Valérie Bonneton, Pascale Arbillot, Joël Dupuch
Running time: 154 minutes

Little White Lies is showing at the Rio Cinema until Thursday 21 April.