Xavier Dolan has never shied away from making every single emotion in his movies as explicit as possible, through music and dialogue especially. It’s Only the End of the World is no different, with terminally-ill playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) explaining his decision to return home and face his family after over a decade through voiceover, followed immediately by Camille’s “Home Is Where It Hurts.” The decision to shoot many of the exchanges in close-up, then, becomes another way to make everything explicit; the pained, uncomfortable expressions of this family that simultaneously can’t stand to be around one another and desperately long to be in contact nearly always in frame.
The literalization of familial claustrophobia through hyper-awareness and the way that Dolan and cinematographer André Turpin use the camera to make every space feel as painfully tight as possible is an isolating factor, but one that serves the grand theme. Louis, while not closeted in his sexuality (though it is implied that it was part of his reasoning for leaving home in the first place), is closeted in his withholding of why he’s returned home. There’s self-awareness in the writing, from both Dolan and playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, and the themes explored in their respective works overlap in a way that makes Dolan the right fit for adapting something as heavy as this. Discussion of this being his most mature work isn’t wrong, but it ignores the fact that this film simply hones in on certain themes he’s explored through his entire career, while leaving others behind.
As with the adaptation of any stage play, the film becomes a series of haphazardly edited conversations, only put on pause for beautiful moments of silence or loud distraction. But memories come to the surface as Louis explores his old bedroom or watches his mother and sister dance to O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” (better known as the Numa Numa song). While the latter sounds ridiculous, it’s a surprisingly simple and touching bit of nostalgia, which is also a heavy factor into the mood that Dolan creates. “Why tell stories we already know?,” Antoine (Vincent Cassel) asks his mother (Nathalie Baye). She responds, “We do that in life, stop being so stiff! We recall and relive the things we love. I know she knows, but I enjoy telling her again. That’s why we remember, for me!”
It’s Only the End of the World is filled to the brim with characters, ticks, beats, words, songs, and decisions that exist to isolate. This is ultimately a film in which the characters–Louis, Antoine, Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), their mother, and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard)–all talk over each other, yell at each other, constantly correct themselves and stumble over their own words. This is who these people are: damaged and familiar to some, but unbearable to others, in part due to their inability to change. Their unhappiness comes across as indulgent to those who haven’t live in it, who don’t exist in it on a constant basis. But the characters in Dolan’s latest exist in a constant state of avoidance, of insecurities, of not being able to say what they want until it explodes out of them. The operatic nature of Mommy is traded in for something far more restrained, parsed down in aesthetic and scope, but no less ambitious.
Where Louis is forced into the role of patriarch, his older brother consistently being cut down by himself and those around him, Dolan often frames Ulliel like a child, complementing his restrained performance. “I’m 34,” he utters when his mother asks him his age, but he looks twelve as he stares at curtains and holds her close. Much more subtly than with Tom at the Farm, the film explores toxic masculinity and meekness as a source of strength, not weakness. Aggression is depicted as the shield it truly is, a mask for emotions that aren’t allowed to be shown. Cassel’s performance becomes the polar opposite of Ulliel’s, and the two work perfectly in tandem.
Where many men look at the women in their lives through the reductive scope of being nothing more than sisters, mothers, and wives, Dolan depicts them as more than that. Yes, they play into their roles and are seen through how they interact with Louis, but there’s a sense of individuality to them all because Seydoux, Cotillard, and Baye all sell their internal struggles in a unique fashion. Where Antoine talks too much to never deal with emotion, Catherine talks too much because of her anxieties, hoping her simple stories will be warmly received by someone other than her husband. Suzanne models herself not after the mother who seems all too interested in keeping the pleasantries going by cooking and creating distraction, but after the brother who was barely present for her upbringing.
It’s through this magnificent ensemble, whether they’re quietly looking at each other or yelling in an explosive climax, and Dolan’s insistence on keeping the camera on their faces as much as possible, that the film becomes as great as it is. With It’s Only the End of the World, Xavier Dolan nails the toxicity of being surrounded by family and how every single minute of being with the people you love (or are supposed to love) can feel like an agonizing waste of time.
Directed by Xavier Dolan; written by Xavier Dolan; based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce; starring Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotillard, and Léa Seydoux; 97 minutes.
It’s Only the End of the World is currently premiering at festivals in the US. It will show twice at the Miami Film Festival on March 6th at 9:30 p.m. at Gables Cinema and March 11th at 1 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Beach. I will be introducing both screenings.