Released 24th February 2017
There are some films that may be good, but are certainly not enjoyable. It’s Only The End of The World, the latest work from divisive Québécois director Xavier Dolan, is one of those. The narrative of an imploding family is relentlessly claustrophobic and at times excruciating, but this melodrama does well to honestly portray how hard it can be for families to communicate when it matters the most.
The film follows acclaimed playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) as he visits his estranged family after a twelve-year absence to tell them he is dying. The film is structured so as to give Louis time alone with each family member, hinting at the wounds lying below the pleasantries: mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) resents Louis’ failure to reach, younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) has become bruised and insecure in his absence, while abrasive older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) feels Louis doesn’t respect or care about his life, and cruelly projects this towards those around him.
These resentments then explode in the dining scenes where most of the action happens. Rarely, though, are they expressed clearly; between the strained pleasantries and messy yelling, there’s a dearth of real communication. For the most part, the characters are so withdrawn that they are incapable of telling each other how they really feel. Accordingly, they say everything apart from what they mean: Louis recounts his travel itinerary while Martine discusses perfume with him. What’s important is what isn’t said.
This means that there’s little conclusion in It’s Only The End of The World, just mounting discomfort. The film’s smothering tension is expertly communicated by the cinematographer’s choice to focus so closely on characters’ faces that they hardly fit in the shot, giving the effect of brutal intimacy while still leaving much obscured.
The film’s lack of emotional clarity or resolution has attracted criticism, but I feel this misses the point. When it comes to confrontations about issues that matter, you always expect yourself to spill your guts out and say your piece. More often than not, though, you end up saying nothing at all, and when all is said and done, little has in fact been said or done. Dolan captures this painful, deflating reality better than most. If the characters’ failure to relate by the end of the film feels deflating, it’s meant to be.
But it also leaves the characters underdeveloped, coming across as caricatured film archetypes. Suzanne plays the perpetual teenager, her smoky basement life soundtracked by Grimes and Blink-182. Catherine is a timid wife who spends the little time she is listened to tongue-tied. And, while Cassel is impressively irascible as Antoine, huffing and bristling almost constantly, without any clearly-communicated emotional underpinning it feels unrealistic and forced.
Additionally, Dolan doesn’t provide quite enough context to make sense of the film and let it resonate. We’re never given any indication of why Louis left home in the first place, and it’s hard to tell if it was his departure that shattered the family or if it was this very dysfunction that pushed him out. One possible route that Dolan never explores is Louis’ homosexuality: little is made of the LGBT context that informed the Jean-Luc Lagarce play this film is adapted from. We are led to assume Louis is dying of AIDS, and some asides suggest his family are uncomfortable with his sexuality (see Antoine’s tirade against Louis’ “la-di-dah” lifestyle), but this theme is never developed to a satisfactory degree.
In the end, then, It’s Only The End of The World is a film that is painfully honest but not quite satisfactory. To a degree, this is acceptable: Dolan ably expresses the traumas and resentments that can fester at the core of a family. At the same time, though, this emotional disconnection impedes us from getting enough detail to really relate to or understand the characters. The result is a film that is at once both smothering and strangely distant.