There may not be a place in modern American arthouse cinema for a movie as subtle and static as Claude Miller's Chekhov riff La Petite Lili. Loosely based on The Seagull, the film takes place mostly during one weekend, at a country estate populated by actors, filmmakers, and the idle rich. The guests talk art and the generation gap, and pair off for sex in the bushes, but aside from a mid-movie shift in location and perspective, not much happens, and Miller refuses to let style overshadow dialogue and performances. La Petite Lili isn't conventional or crowd-pleasing enough to appeal to audiences who like their foreign films safely sentimental, but it's also not daring enough for those who expect art to hurt a little.
On the other hand, the film is to a large extent about this deep divide in contemporary world cinema. Miller came of age during the classic French New Wave, apprenticing with the likes of Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, and close friend François Truffaut. His own films, though, like Alias Betty, Class Trip, and The Accompanist, tend to be intense but not edgy, lightly constructed but never uncontrolled. Naturally, in La Petite Lili, Miller is drawn to the conflict between Robinson Stévenin, playing the rebellious art-film-touting son of famous actress Nicole Garcia, and Bernard Giraudeau, who plays a popular director whose establishment ties mark him as everything Stévenin detests.
Miller understandably sympathizes with Giraudeau, and, during the lengthy debates about how popular art should be, Stévenin comes off like a spoiled rich kid while Giraudeau nobly defends the staid. Even La Petite Lili's title character, aspiring actress Ludivine Sagnier, cozies up to Giraudeau by praising the way his films "make audiences happy." But La Petite Lili develops into something slightly richer than the average talk-heavy, plot-light French fare because Miller also respects Stévenin—the way a former activist respects a picket line. Miller can see the compromises ahead, but for the moment, as Stévenin screens his ridiculous experimental shorts for family and friends, Miller's heart is with the audience member who pulls the painfully sincere young man aside and confesses, "I liked its failings."