After the incendiary power of Mommy, Xavier Dolan returns with a smouldering mess which we can only hope represents the heap of ashes from which his next film will rise, phoenix-like, as another masterpiece.
It’s Only the End of the World is an absolutely torturous experience, as a whole and in each of the countless drawn-out moments and scenes which lend it a sluggish pace worlds away from the anguished urgency of Mommy.
The unoriginality and contrivance of the premise – a prodigal son visits the family from which he has estranged himself – really should have been transcended thanks to its who’s-who of French acting talent. Several of the cast – Vincent Cassel, Léa Seydoux and Marion Cotillard – are now at least as well known for working in English- as French-language productions. Due to this, it makes very little sense, and in fact causes much distraction and annoyance, that Cotillard’s character is so verbally inarticulate.
Unfortunately, she’s not the only one. The protagonist, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), is almost pathologically withdrawn. Add to this the near-total dearth of back story and there’s barely any reason for the audience to care about him, much less sympathise with his unforgiving attitude toward his family.
What little back story we do get is thankfully presented with Dolan’s characteristic verve. Mediocre and ultra-populist chart-toppers soundtrack abstract and emotive surreal segments which are imbued with a greater expanse of passionate feeling than any of the film’s fraught one-on-one confrontations. These quintessential Dolan moments are far from enough to justify It’s Only the End of the World’s existence, however, or its Grand Jury Prize from the Cannes Film Festival.
Elsewhere, Dolan’s usually confident and adept mastery of style is lacking. It’s Only the End of the World is obsessively shot almost exclusively in close-up, a decision which perhaps aims to reflect Louis’ feeling of entrapment but instead creates a visually bland and creatively lazy experience – two phrases I never thought I’d use to describe Dolan.
It’s Only the End of the World could have made much more of the upward class mobility alluded to in Louis’ leaving his rural family home for the city. The family display a spectacularised admiration for Louis’ career as a playwright (from Dolan’s position as a young male writer-director this seems a little self-congratulatory), and his brother Antoine’s traditional, working-class profession is namedropped in a needlessly melodramatic reveal. Yet Dolan doesn’t follow through by probing the consequences these divergences have to the family’s dynamic. Instead It’s Only the End of the World replays in its frustrating protagonist the American cliché of a family member who ‘gets away’ and ‘makes something of themselves’, without bothering to complicate this obviously simplistic concept.
It’s Only the End of the World shows what it might have been in the few euphoric moments of Dolan at his flamboyant and music-driven best, and in the performances of Cassel and Nathalie Baye. Baye’s severe and histrionic mother – a role another bilingual actress, Kristin Scott Thomas, would have excelled at – is a joy, and Cassel shines in an against-type moment of tenderness. Ultimately though, the 100 minutes of less-than-gripping cinema have no real narrative or emotional pay off.