It’s Only The End Of The World (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye) Running Time: 99 minutes approx.
What is it about families that they are usually the last people we tell big news to? Why do we fear their reactions the most? Is it out fault or theirs? Prodigious French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan adapts the play Juste la fin du monde by Jean-Luc Lagarce to explore this dilemma in his own inimitable and esoteric fashion.
After an absence of 12 years, 34-year-old gay playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) arrives to reconnect with his family one hot summer’s day. Gregarious mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) welcomes him with open arms, as does his punkish younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) who has vague memories of him. His older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is antagonistic while his timorous wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard) is meeting Louis for the first time.
Naturally, Louis has an ulterior motive – he is dying and this is his chance to tell his family and rebuild any bridges. Yet his presence seems to cause greater dissension between everybody, closing the window on his chance to break his tragic news and head towards his final days in peace.
Original author Lagrace died of AIDS in 1995, making this valedictorian work from 1990 either autobiographical or eerily prescient. One thing Dolan has confirmed is that it isn’t self-referential to him, despite inference from some critics, who have been vociferously divided over the precocious wunderkind’s latest film.
It doesn’t take long to know we are watching a Dolan film even though he is keen to do something to differentiate each successive work. After a cold opening of Louis narrating his inner fears sitting in a car bathed in blue hued moonlight, an opening credits montage of the family lunch being prepared is heavy with out-of-focus shots seen from obscure angles, a favourite technique of Dolan’s.
This becomes something of a leitmotif of the film, as do the invasive close-ups of the cast to create a cloying, claustrophobic sensation as the tension rises in the household. Soon the viewer is experiencing the same febrile dizziness Louis is suffering from, turning this into a battle of wills between the audience and the characters as to who will give out first.
Antoine is immediately insufferable, chiding Louis from the onset for greeting them with a handshake and not a kiss. Suzanne comes to Louis’ rescue only to be reminded by Antoine that she doesn’t really know him. Martine’s incessant ramblings also prove to be anathema for Antoine and he lets his feelings known. And poor Catherine doesn’t escape his caustic tongue either, being shouted down for telling Louis about their kids.
Yet this is apparently everyone else’s fault because they don’t understand Antoine, and frankly, neither will the audience. Perhaps he is jealous of his brother’s success and felt slighted by his lack of communication, save for some cryptic postcards, which Suzanne saved. As the youngest sibling, she is the most in tune with Louis but feels betrayed that she wasn’t able to share his creative success by way of nurturing her own ambitions.
Matriarch Martine is not as kooky as she makes out but seems to keep up the pretence in order to keep her family around her, ignoring how it drives Suzanne and Antoine up the wall. She tries to keep the peace but seems to stoke the flames of dissent further, although just the tiniest of a spark is required for that.
The most curious character is Catherine, a mousy, borderline submissive wife constantly apologising for her existence whenever Antoine barks at her for whatever petty reason. As an ostensive stranger to Louis, she seems to be the only one able to read between the lines of his cryptic answers and nervous behaviour, sussing out his reason for returning. She won’t say anything as it’s not her place; ultimately Catherine proves to be more like family to Louis than his own flesh and blood.
Dolan has said that the original play is much longer and far more complex, with its verbose and prolix passages of dialogue, so he had to excise much of the material to create a more streamlined script and create a patchwork narrative from other salient bits. It is perhaps this reason that this film doesn’t resonate with some audiences, and it is easy to see why, leaving us to decipher what was presumably afforded more detail in the play.
Escaping the confines of the stage origins, Dolan indulges in his oneiric flights of fancy to denote the passing of time or for when Louis enjoys a flashback to his youth of the old family house he wants to see one last time. Accompanied by hi-energy pop music or a stabbing orchestral soundtrack, we drift in and out of lucidity in what is either a cherished memory or a chimerical hallucination.
Such visual flourishes are as much a part of Dolan’s identity as his scarily mature direction for someone who isn’t even 30, yet has six multi-award winning films to his name. In this instance, it might be seen as style over substance in lieu of fleshing out what was originally written for a more static platform, and as congruent as these asides are, their occasional surrealism might be too abstruse for some.
If the characters or the garrulous verbiage deters some audiences, the A-List cast are the compensation. Dolan coaxes something unique from each one of this talented cadre in depicting this toxic relationship – from Nathalie Baye subtly hamming it up as Martine, to Léa Seydoux’s emotional hot head Suzanne; from Vincent Cassell’s incendiary Antoine to doormat leveller Catherine, delicately essayed by Marion Cotillard, and Gaspard Ulliel’s tortured presence as Louis.
The debate as to whether Dolan has done it again or the bubble has finally burst with It’s Only The End Of The World is likely to rage on until his next film arrives. Certainly a beguiling, provocatively raw and pessimistic work feels longer than its 99 minutes, but at least has something about it to evoke and encourage passionate discussion.
5.1 Surround Sound
Interview With Xavier Dolan and Marion Cotillard
Rating – ***
Man In Black