These are exciting times for the actor and director Guillaume Canet. In January it was officially confirmed that he is to become a father, and now Little White Lies, his directorial follow-up to the international box office smash Tell No One, has been a hit in France and looks likely to repeat the trick at cinemas around the globe.
No wonder the 37-year-old Frenchman is walking around with a smile. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the star of The Beach on a number of occasions and it has always been fun. The actor has a cheeky twinkle in his eye when he speaks and he’s been more relaxed than ever since the success of Tell No One – his second film as a director – helped to establish his dream of being a director of note.
Little White Lies is more mature fare. It’s in the tradition of Eric Rohmer in that it doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead concentrates on disputes and relationships in a middle-class circle of family and friends.
The action starts with a road accident in Paris before settling in the warm surroundings of a country estate in southern of France. As the title suggests, the movie is as much about what goes unsaid as the dispute that takes place.
Indeed, Canet got the idea for the film when he realised that his own life had become full of white lies. “I realised that sometimes you lose friends because of the little things that you don’t say,” he tells me. “You just hide things because you think it’s going to hurt someone and in the end I realised that I was lying to myself about so many things.”
Canet has had to learn the hard way. His first marriage to the actress Diane Kruger ended when the couple realised that they were no longer making time for each other. She appeared in his directorial debut, Mon Idole. His early career was bedevilled by suggestions that he was a success because of his handsome looks rather than his ability on screen.
This was not helped by the fact that Canet, who trained as a show jumper before an accident ended his career, always had a sense of dissatisfaction about acting, knowing that what he really wanted to do was direct.
That desire saw him stop acting for a year and concentrate on learning how to direct, making short films and going to film festivals such as Berlin where he could pick the brains of other filmmakers and view a concentrated assortment of movies. Now he is reaping the rewards of those endeavours.
The reason the film is so personal is also that his third film marks the first time that he has written a script from scratch. So as he stared at the page, he claims: “I just wanted to combine things that had happened in my life. Without being pretentious and saying it’s a movie about life and that kind of thing, I wanted to show that you can be in a weird situation or a tragic situation and still have a desire to laugh.”
This is an important point: at first it feels strange that a group of friends and family would go on holiday while one of their number lies in a coma in hospital.
I put this to Canet, who replied: “I know it’s crazy, but it’s also life. It happens like this: if a doctor tells you that you can’t do anything for someone, and you know that you have planned a two-week vacation, you have to say that he’s in a coma, he’s just sleeping, what am I going to achieve by staying here?
“Maybe we can just go and if there is some news we can always come back, as after all it’s just an hour by plane. So it happens that Max is convincing them to go in this way, he wants them to go because he has this house, he wants to show his money, his new boat. But I can understand that the decision to go is difficult to understand.”
Max is played by the Tell No One star François Cluzot and Canet gives Marion Cotillard the role of Marie, an ethnologist with commitment issues.
The director wanted to give roles to people whom he knew personally and who knew each other, believing there would be a better intimacy between the characters at the dinner party scenes. It’s this that gives the film the flavour of a French rendition of the 1980s classic The Big Chill. People going through relationship crises of one sort or another find themselves caught in vicious circles.
As for Cotillard, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the singer Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007), he says: “I’ve known Marion for 14 years, and we have shot two films together and I think she is an amazing actress. Of course she knows all my friends, so it was clear that she would be in this film.”
This is the first movie that he has directed but not acted in. His first instinct was to take on a role, but perhaps it is a sign of new-found maturity that he recognised that in this case combining the two functions would be too much work.
About his drive to make films, he says: “You have to be sincere when you make a film; without sincerity there is no authenticity. You have to throw yourself into the story when you do a movie.”
Yet he insists there is no way he will stop acting. Over the years he’s developed a passion for being in front of camera, and coming soon is Last Night, a movie in which he plays an old flame of a British woman (Keira Knightley) living in New York. It’s the type of charismatic cad role that Canet excels in.
His attempts to woo his former love are biting. “It’s a great film and was so good to work with Keira and Eva Mendes and it’s about couples as well and the difficulties in relationships.”
Canet will then be seen in A Better Life directed by Cedric Khan. The actor admits that it’s becoming more and more difficult to find roles to play as he has become more and more choosy about the directors he wants to work with: “My acting choices have become more limited because now I can’t work with a director who doesn’t know what he wants on set.”
But he promises that there will not be another five-year gap between directing jobs. He is working on a script with James Gray, the director of Two Lovers.
The film is an adaptation of a French film, Rivals, in which Canet appeared in 2008, about two brothers, one a policeman and the other a criminal. The idea is that Canet will direct it as his first American project.
It is loosely based on a true story of the Papet brothers, who even wrote a memoir together about their battles in Lyon in the 1970s. If it’s anything like the French version, it will be full of handlebar moustaches and long sideburns – and it will be worth the wait.
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