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Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s emotionally and stylistically bold movies, with their overflowing tears and ear-splitting screaming matches, their tonal swings, ravenous use of pop music and grab bag of formal tricks, have made the 27-year-old one of the more divisive international screen auteurs. The things his admirers (myself included) like about his work — the excess, the unabashedness, the refusal to play by rules of art house taste — are the very things his detractors seem to be allergic to.
Unfortunately, the filmmaker’s latest, It’s Only the End of the World (premiering in competition in Cannes), is likely to unite the pro- and anti-Dolan factions in broad agreement: It’s not very good.
Several of Dolan’s trademarks are present and accounted for: domestic dysfunction, a queer protagonist, a middle-aged female character with a fierce temperament and even fiercer hair and makeup, a lush score and, of course, rich and playful visuals. But, in his first film set outside Canada, the director finds himself stymied by weak source material — Jean-Luc Lagarce’s 1990 play about a young man who returns home to tell his family he’s dying — and only intermittently well served by his starry French cast (Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Nathalie Baye).
It’s Only the End of the World opens with 34-year-old gay playwright Louis (Ulliel) on a red-eye flight back to rural France after a 12-year absence (where he lives currently is never specified). Via voiceover, Louis tells us that he wants to prove to himself that he is still “the master of [his] life” — not an easy task, given the family he’s got. Mom Martine (Baye) is a hysteric decked out in a sleek black wig with blue eye makeup and nails; older brother Antoine (Cassel) is a seething hulk who routinely barks at his sweet, socially awkward wife Catherine (Cotillard); and younger sis Suzanne (Seydoux) is a chatty, tattooed pothead who’s pleasant enough when she’s not hurling hostilities at her mother or Antoine. Everyone’s either hurt or angry — or both — that Louis has been away so long.
From the get-go, the stagy, stylized dialogue is jarring, and the pitch a few notches too feverish, even by Dolan standards (the filmmaker was far more surefooted adapting a play for the screen in his terrific Tom at the Farm). Moreover, most problematically, the characters in It’s Only the End of the World just aren’t very interesting. Each gets his or her chance to confront Louis: Suzanne, who was a little girl when her brother left, wonders why he only sends postcards (which the mailman can read); Martine says she loves him despite the fact that he’s been an uncaring son; Catherine reveals that Antoine feels Louis isn’t interested in his life; and Antoine verbally abuses Louis in the car while they drive to buy cigarettes. But there’s little mystery or dimension to all the tantrums, confessions, passive-aggressive barbs and pregnant silences, and Dolan struggles to wring any real emotion from these people’s reopened wounds and tentative steps toward reconciliation. While the melodrama in the filmmaker’s other work felt bracing and alive, the histrionics in It’s Only the End of the World ring hollow.
Meanwhile, Louis remains a frustratingly recessive central presence. The exact reasons for his estrangement from his family are never revealed, and though Ulliel cuts a touching figure — his strapping masculinity offset by his gentle demeanor — he doesn’t have much to work with. Nor do the other performers. Cotillard has a poignant moment or two and Seydoux hits a note of piercing neediness in the penultimate scene, but Baye is distractingly hammy and Cassel’s Antoine is essentially a monotonous grump.
The director does his darnedest to make this material his own. Reteaming with DP Andre Turpin (his collaborator on Mommy and Tom at the Farm), Dolan uses individual facial close-ups and a shallow depth of field (so that only one person is in focus at a time) to underline the alienation of each unhappy character; he breaks out the slow-mo and turns up the Europop (the shamefully addictive Moldovan hit “Numa Numa” is a highlight); he throws in a few lyrical flashbacks to Louis’ childhood and adolescence, sequences of sex, drugs and dream-like beauty that open up the story and take us all too fleetingly away from the talky rancor; and he floods the frame with fiery orange light in the climactic scene, suggesting a veritable inferno of family squabbling.
But the effort is in vain, and you leave It’s Only the End of the World wondering why Dolan thought this particular play was worth his passion. He may be incapable of making a flat or lifeless film, but for the first time he’s made a cold and deeply unsatisfying one.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Sons of Manual, MK2 Productions, Telefilm Canada
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Nathalie Baye
Director-writer: Xavier Dolan (based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce)
Producers: Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan, Sylvain Corbeil, Nathanael Karmitz, Elisha Karmitz, Michel Merkt
Executive producer: Patrick Roy
Music: Gabriel Yared
Cinematographer: Andre Turpin
Editor: Xavier Dolan
Production designer: Colombe Raby
Not rated, 95 minutes
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