'It's Only the End of the World'
Xavier Dolan is a curious case. He burst onto the international filmmaking scene at 20 and was hailed as an impressive original voice while most folks in his generation were still figuring out if they even liked movies. Since then, he’s made almost a film a year and seems to alternate from living up to his hype and infuriating his haters with each project. When he’s on-point, his movies feel vibrantly experimental and emotionally captivating. When he’s off, it very much feels like a kid playing pretend at adult incisiveness.
Dolan’s latest feature caused a stir at Cannes, where it was slaughtered by critics yet still won an award. It’s easy to see why both responses happened. On the one hand, the movie is tremendously well made with an impressive cast. On the other hand, it’s deeply indulgent and often downright irritating.
‘It’s Only the End of the World’ is one of those movies about a painful family reunion where old secrets are laid bare and tension simmers for every second until big actor-y explosions break the tension. Gaspard Ulliel (‘Hannibal Rising’) plays Louis, a young writer suffering from an unspecified terminal illness. He hasn’t visited his family in 12 years. They’ve anxiously awaited his return, but only have awkward ways of expressing those emotions. His mother (Nathalie Baye) puts on a tacky fashion show with endless gossiping. His stoner sister (Lea Seydoux) seems desperate to cling to his every move. His brother (Vincent Cassel) takes every opportunity to have a temper tantrum. And his overly sensitive sister-in-law just sits by confused, desperately hoping that people will start playing nice. Every time Louis opens his mouth, he’s immediately shut up by one relative or another. It’s like they’ve all scripted this reunion for so long that they don’t want to listen, just live out their personal selfish fantasies.
The movie was adapted from a play and boy-oh-boy does it ever feel like it. Dialogue runs long and every time a character speaks, an audition monologue spills out to the point of tedium. Rather than doing anything to open up the play for the screen, Dolan focuses on the claustrophobia of the situation and his actors. The movie is essentially shot entirely in close-ups and long takes. They’re beautifully framed, but incredibly static. The performers dive into their meaty piles of words with gusto, as if to compete over who can act the hardest.
Despite how impressive the tremendous talent in front of and behind the camera are, everything feels flat, melodramatic and overstated. On stage, this would probably feel like being trapped in a room with these horrible people. On film, it’s almost as frustrating to watch as it would be to live (and not always in the ways the filmmaker intended). This is an overblown movie that drips with self-satisfying pretentions and seriousness that can be hard to stomach. It at once embodies everything Dolan’s critics scream about him and shows off his talents. It will be a divisive picture either loathed or humbly respected, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who wasn’t involved in the production actually loving this thing.