The second feature by one of the superstars of contemporary French cinema is an ensemble comedy-drama that is entrancing and infuriating in about equal measure.
It is often engrossing, the script is crisply written and the acting is first rate. But it's at least half an hour too long and when, late in the piece, one of its minor characters delivers the others a dressing-down for their self-centredness, he gives voice to a frustration that has dogged the viewer: the angst of middle class 30-somethings is a theme that French filmmakers, from Truffaut, through Rohmer to Jean Becker, explore with irresistibly understated style but this film needed a firmer hand both in script development and the edit suite.
Canet, a leading actor (The Beach, Farewell), was the writer-director brains behind the sensational thriller Tell No One a few years back. He casts his partner Marion Cotillard, whose performance as Edith Piaf earned her the first acting Oscar for a French film, as the centre of the ensemble here in a movie that inevitably recalls The Big Chill, with a soundtrack that includes Bowie, Joplin and the Isley Brothers efficiently instructing the viewer what to feel and when.
In a stunningly staged accident early on, a young party boy, Ludo (Dujardin), is critically injured. His circle of friends agonise about whether to proceed with a planned group holiday in the south-west and decide on a shortened version.
Each member of the crew that then gathers in the unostentatiously gorgeous seaside house of stressed-out restaurateur Max (Cluzet) is carrying some sort of baggage. Vincent (Magimel), Max's osteopath, is nursing a secret passion he doesn't quite understand, Antoine (Lafitte) is obsessed with the absent Juliette but can't see what is plain to everyone else - that it's over, Eric (Lellouche), an actor, takes an emotional gut punch at the film's mid-point and Marie (Cotillard) seems, at first, the solid lodestone of the group but her pain just takes longer to surface.
It's an encounter group in dappled sunlight with excellent wine and Canet's script brings the characters slowly into focus so you learn to like them. But the film's length gives you time to go right off them too. It's worth noting that it was a spectacular hit in France but in a year that has given us a good number of emotionally literate French films (such as Summer Hours and the upcoming Beautiful Lies), this one is slightly outclassed.
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Francois Cluzet, Benoit Magimel, Gilles Lellouche, Jean Dujardin, Laurent Lafitte, Valerie Bonneton, Pascale Arbillot, Jean Dujardin Director: Guillaume Canet
Running time: 148 mins
Rating: R16 (contains offensive language, drug use and sexual themes) In French with English subtitles.
Verdict: Le grand chill.