Xavier Dolan has become an increasingly polarising figure on the film festival circuit. At 27, with six feature films under his belt, he is as prolific as he is precocious. It feels as though it’s only recently that he has transitioned from Canadian indie darling — his film’s vibrant aesthetics appealing to audiences everywhere — into a figure many critics love to hate. That’s partly why Dolan’s shock at the critical reaction to It’s Only the End of the World also seems so surprising to the rest of us. That said, while the film is nowhere near as audacious as his earlier work, Dolan is right when he says that this is his most mature film.
It’s Only the End of the World has a simple premise and a constricted timeline: Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a successful playwright, returns to see his family after 12 years of absence to tell them he is dying. His return digs up old wounds with his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel), who takes these frustrations out on the rest of his family, their sister, Suzanne (played by the lovely Léa Seydoux), their mother (Nathalie Baye) and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard). It’s an incredible cast, all of them immense talents in French cinema, that bring huge amounts of capital to the table. It’s also a cast that Dolan has been accused of wasting.
A lot has been written about Marion Cotillard’s performance, not much of which has been charitable. As she plays her, Catherine is a mild and fumbling woman. She is the kindest of the group, having not inherited the same emotional bipolarity as her husband’s family. Both outsiders, she and Louis share some of the most tender moments of the film, held glances and unspoken truths. It’s fair to say that Catherine is something of a walking cliché, the quiet one who can really see what’s happening with Louis. It’s a role not befitting Cotillard on paper but she brings so much to it nonetheless, the quiet moments she shares with Louis acting as a momentary respite from the high-octane arguments between her husband and his sister; her mistreatment by her husband, who constantly dismisses her, is heartbreaking to watch.
It is in these moments that the film is at its best. Its greatest strength is in its depiction of family and the relationship dynamics the film crucially sets up. The way Antoine belittles his sister, taunts her and plays with her is so affecting, and Suzanne crumbling at his treatment is agonising to watch. You shouldn’t necessarily equate the realistic with great filmmaking and Dolan’s talent has always been his management of emotion and relationship negotiation. All of his films are about emotionality, about arguments between mothers and sons or loving someone who doesn’t love you. This film’s action exists entirely in the relationships between the characters and in the suspense of Louis’ revelation to them. Everything else, including the film’s specific temporal and spatial coordinates, is withheld.
This is not done unintentionally, with the title card at the beginning of the film telling us that the action takes place “Somewhere, a while ago already.” Dolan’s (now signature?) inclusion of a flip phone in one scene and their boring, rather drab and unspecific clothing reveals very little about time. The music is almost all ‘old’ — 90’s, early 2000s-specific, but not so exclusively as to be pinned down.1 The film keeps this from us, almost as if to say it doesn’t matter. All we get is the aftermath. Dolan invites us to fill in the blanks. We project our own ideas of why Louis’ brother has so much resentment for him and we learn about his character from his dialogue: the way he taunts people, repeating what they say in stupid voices. Antoine as a character, while more nuanced in some ways, is grating to listen to. The film exists only in their conversations, and the constant yelling and fighting does weigh on the audience, no doubt.
Visually, the movie is interesting in how little it shows off. André Turpin, who has worked as Dolan’s cinematographer since 2013’s Tom at the Farm, provides subtle colour and tone, with the dream-like flashback sequences particularly beautiful. It is a departure from Dolan’s previously highly stylised efforts. His 2010 film Heartbeats was bright and colourful, Tom at the Farm was tainted and muddy, but End of the World has a mostly muted palette; somehow dull, almost neutral. The tone, like their clothing, doesn’t stand out. Dolan has made a film that is at once his most restrained and withholding work while still being remarkably indulgent. A whole film told in tight close-ups on anguished faces.
Perhaps the most crucial thing the film neglects to inform us of is what Louis is dying from. The film is an adaptation of the 1990 play of the same name (Juste la fin du monde) by French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce. Lagarce died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995 and it has been noted by some that the film (arguably) actively avoids any mention of HIV/AIDS.2 It is not impossible to assume that Louis is dying of an AIDS-related illness. Even in the early 2000s — a time the film could feasibly be set in — treatment isn’t as good or as available as it is today. Dolan gives us just enough to let us linger on an HIV-related death, without confirming anything, resisting reductive assumption. This makes for frustrating and difficult viewing; the relentlessness of it all, the collection of unlikable characters.
Dolan’s films are not always easy, but they do stay with you. Two years ago at the Sydney Film Festival, I reviewed Dolan’s Mommy, which at the time I was not so convinced by. Even though I have never gone back to re-visit it, I think about that film often. I don’t know if It’s Only the End of the World will have that same staying power, but I think, for now at least, it acts as a step in an interesting direction for a director I still love to love.
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