Xavier Dolan, the 27-year old French-Canadian filmmaker with prodigious talent and a handful of brilliant films under his belt (including the 2014 Jury Prize winner, Mommy), returned to Cannes this year with the understandably anticipated It’s Only the End of the World. Despite being met with boos and largely negative reviews, it was surprisingly awarded the prestigious Grand Prix prize. While it is a flawed film, it certainly doesn’t deserve that vitriolic reception. There is still a lot to like about this emotionally intense – and often excruciatingly shrill – but stylistically restrained family drama, adapted by Dolan from an eponymous play by Jean-Luc Lagarce.
Successful writer Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) returns to his hometown after a twelve-year absence to break the news of his impending death. He is welcomed, with varying degrees of warmth, by his mother (Nathalie Baye), sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) and sister-in-law Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Immediate awkwardness is never really tempered as the sweltering afternoon turns into a hotbed of bickering and recriminations. As Louis tries to find the right moment to break the news, his mind wanders back to pivotal memories from his youth.
The sudden musical-montage flourishes (hyper-stylised slo-mo with an accompanying blaring pop song), usually Dolan’s bread-and-butter, are tonally jarring don’t work at all, while the heavy-handed symbolism of the ending is unsatisfactory. However, the quieter one-on-one exchanges between the characters confirm his substantial skill at chronicling familial relationships, and drawing brilliant performances from his casts.
From the all-star ensemble it is Seydoux and Cotillard who shine, and their portrayals ring the most true. The exchanges between the bumbling, nerve-shot Catherine – a kind and thoughtful person reduced to a meek wreck by her bullying husband – and Louis are especially moving. Baye is often hysterically abrasive, while Cassel’s portrayal of a typical Cassel character – intimidating, confrontational and verbally brutal – takes a surprising twist that made me completely re-think my initial interpretation.
Ulliel is predominantly a blank slate, with very few lines – but he adequately portrays the terror he understandably feels at revealing the news to his family; ashamed to be involving them again in his life for such selfish reasons, and the pain of revisiting the past and finding his relationships with his family in such a bad way. While he is restrained here, Dolan still photographs his actors in an interesting way; almost-entirely through close-ups. His dialogue and character developments are less consistently successful, and range from the shriekingly pretentious to devastatingly truthful.
But he does nails the awkwardness of the 12-year reunion, and the natural urge to air dirty laundry as they all clumsily try and get along. His family; an emotionally unhinged mother who is finding it more difficult to understand her children but is thrilled to have them all under the one roof, a younger sibling infatuated with the brother she has never known or interacted with as an adult, and a bullying older brother whose contempt has been brewing ever since his exit from their lives.
Is it Dolan’s weakest effort so far? Yes, but it is still a commendable achievement. There are many little moments and details that have lingered with me, and a reverberating question throughout – do they know what he has come to tell them? – that is so deftly handled, I find it impossible to dismiss.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer(s): Xavier Dolan (screenplay), Jean-Luc Lagarce (play)
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux
Country: France, Canada
Runtime: 95 minutes