by Ken Bakely
God bless Xavier Dolan. I mean, really though. I’m not the first person to say that. The Canadian wunderkind has made six feature films now, and he’s not even thirty. His brand of dysfunctional family melodrama is certainly reliable, and you know what you’re getting from him. And he’s a great visual artist. He makes tedium look pretty. That’s good, because It’s Only the End of the World features one of the most tedious screenplays imaginable from this material. It moves, but only in the sense that it starts at one point and ends later. People shout at each other, sometimes about nothing at all. They shout at each other in the kitchen. They shout at each other in a car. They shout at each other on different floors of the same house. Sometimes, to break the monotony, there’s a gorgeously realized, dreamy pseudo-flashback to the main character’s life, and there is no shouting because it’s nostalgia.
And then Dolan cuts to the next scene, where people shout at each other again.
To his credit, the people shouting at each other have names, and as I was saying, there is a main character. His name is Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a thirtysomething playwright who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He has flown back home for the first time in many years, where he reunites with his family in a familiar state of disarray. He has been mustering up the courage to tell them of his condition, but has been unable to find the opportunity, because there’s just so much shouting going on.
His father, Antoine, (Vincent Cassel) and mother, Martine, (Nathalie Baye) are on bad terms. His sister, Suzanne, (Léa Seydoux) can’t stand her mom, either. Antoine’s current wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard), is much more reserved than everyone else seems to be. Yet she is still more a part of what’s going on, cast on the inside of the family, than Louis is. Launched back into the dynamic of the past, Louis’ decision to cut off communication with his family seems understandable. Yet underneath the superficiality of the day-to-day fights, unaddressed demons lurk.
It’s Only the End of the World doesn’t feel like it’s about anything. It revolves around elaborately verbal sparring matches. Exposition is delivered during the occasional, quieter conversation when the household is at peace. Better exposition is brought in during the handful of sequences mentioned a few paragraphs ago, where the details of Louis’ coming of age are shown in exquisite and beautiful moments with music video logic. There is clearly a character here. He is struggling, and he’s always struggled. He sees the end of his life in view, and he’s brought himself back to where it all began. That’s an incredibly powerful conceit, and as an actor, Ulliel is aware of what is brewing here. But he’s never given a chance to truly explore Louis’ psyche, because the movie is never organized enough to allow for it.
This is something which also affects the rest of the cast. Many of the actors are playing against type (e.g. Cotillard portraying a shy, reserved woman), and in this respect, they’re up a creek with a cardboard paddle. Loose character outlining gives them a minimal amount of background to work off of, but there isn’t a coherent story arc waiting at the end. Much as Louis is unable to do the thing he came home for, It’s Only the End of the World fails to evolve into something meaningful beyond its admittedly well-staged arguments. This movie is based off a play, and in Dolan’s efforts to make the text more filmable, including shearing off long monologues and giving the dialogue a more naturalistic bent, he has sacrificed structural coherence in the process.
You just want to throw on the painting scene from I Killed My Mother or the aspect ratio change from Mommy, and think back to Dolan’s earlier works. He’s an exciting, passionate storyteller, so sometimes it doesn’t always come together. It’s still disappointing, though. The theme of the tense family drama is what he seems to be attracted to as a director, but this script is so thin that it feels less like a logical step for him, and more like a parody of the most boisterous, recurring elements of his oeuvre. The super-charged dialogue, the moody cinematography, the scrappy pop soundtrack. It’s all here, in the kind of overstuffed, underwritten package that an old filmmaker might make if they were about to retire or die. Dolan is, as of this writing, 28 years old. He has at least one big project currently in the works. And as far as I know, he’s in perfectly fine health. So what gives?