Family be hard. I imagine that ain’t the way for everyone, but when Bush Senior talked about wanting families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons, one guesses it weren’t a simple minority he was talking about. There’s one respite for everyone, eventually you get to grow up and leave, suddenly you don’t got to be around these people every day. Of course, those blissful times come with the one bitter pill, family reunions, those weekends when everyone in attendance realises they’ve only 48 hours to get through all the available wine and a year’s worth of emotion. I ain’t going to say more for fear my family do read this, i shan’t imagine they’d take kindly to it.
It’s Only the End Of the World is the story of one of these gatherings, only worse. Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) a gay playwright, currently living in France, is returning home for the first time in twelve years. He tells us in an opening monologue that he’s terminally ill and he wants his family to know before he dies. The precise nature of this never comes out but, given the context, the spectre of HIV looms large. Of course, upon arriving, his family don’t know, or don’t say they know, or avoid trying to hear, besides each of them is carrying the weight and meaning of twelve years unexplained absence on their shoulders. That is, aside from his brother’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard) who is a literal stranger; Louis didn’t turn up to the wedding.
Writer/Director/Producer/Editor Xavier Dolan (who, wouldn’t you know, likes a lot of control over his flicks) adapted the screenplay from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play of the same name. They seem to get it, how it feels, how all these interactions go, how each of these characters is determined to interact with their own interpretation of the disappeared brother, son. How nothing important is learned in personal conversations, but rather whispered gossip in hallways and gardens. The way bitter arguments can suddenly collapse into comedy. Everyone’s doomed attempts at playing the most authentic version of themselves.
Thankfully, the film is gifted with this amazing core cast who really get into the material, in addition to the previously mentioned Ulliel and Cotillard we got Vincent Cassel, Léa Seydoux and the legendary Nathalie Baye. Like, when you have a script which is all about people’s inability to communicate on any meaningful level, it could be way too easy for these actors to just not listen to each other, not play off each other, not sink deep into these revolving dialogues that tick their way around without ever hitting a resolution. This small house feels like a whole world, and all because of them, aside from some brief wordless flashbacks they’re all we have to hang on to.
The roof is never blown off it though. I’m not sure what about this joint feels so incomplete. It’s surging and powerful, Dolan’s editing in conjunction with André Turpin’s sparse and beautiful cinematography, designed to create as much distance between these characters as possible, just drives and commands these scenes. When it came to the points at which it felt it truly wanted to affect me, it just didn’t.
I’m not sure how to react to that. Maybe it’s that there’s a lot of Casavettes in here, and we’ve been seeing his descendants since the 70s. Perhaps something was lost in translation (from play to screen, not the subtitles), Dolan said himself the entire second act had to be pretty much rewritten in order to turn it into a filmable product, certainly much of the dark humour found at the start there fades softly away.
The film’s blood runs hot, as most of Dolan’s do, he’s unafraid to let his characters be consumed by feeling. It’s something that I admire when steered by a strong hand, and maybe as a result of working with these legit stars they were just a bit harder to control. As the film goes on it tiptoes towards an all-out shouting match, and while that can be so satisfying for actors, it’s poison to the audience’s understanding. Nuance is the first thing to go, clarity second, and the climax feels like it is guilty of this.
Perhaps there’s an audience I’d recommend this to, there’s enough good stuff in there for someone. You like family dramas maybe, or one of these actors especially, you really into Canadian cinema? (okay that’s unfairly dismissive) It’s alright, just alright, and everyone involved has done better elsewhere.
This film won the Grand Prix at Cannes; that’s fair, they must’ve seen something I didn’t in it. But films now got this thing going on where they put that on the opening titles, I know I’ve seen something else with a Golden Bear at the head. Don’t do that, it’s a bad look on you. Keep it to the trailers, otherwise it looks like you’re asking for legitimacy, a confident face looks better than a desperate one.