It's Only The End Of The World ****
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Gaspard Ulliel, Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Nathalie Baye
Director: Xavier Dolan
Xavier Dolan is a director teetering on the edge of greatness. After his critical hits Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways, the French-Canadian has already crossed from indie obscurity into the mainstream... at least in France anyway, where this film only last weekend picked up César Awards for Best Actor and the Best Director statuette for Dolan himself. But unfortunately, as usual for a film in the French language, It's Only The End Of The World has slipped out in the UK only in arthouse cinemas this past weekend without so much as a peep of publicity. Even though it literally contains the A-Z of current French acting royalty.
Based on the play of the same name by Jean-Luc Lagarce, this 90 minute drama follows Louis (Ulliel), a 34-year-old gay playwright, who has returned to visit his estranged family to tell them that he is dying. Over dinner. Most of the family are eager for his return, except his volatile brother Antoine (Cassel), whose wife (Cotillard) Louis has never met. She is terrified of her husband, as is his mother (Baye), who cannot stand up to him. And although his sister (Seydoux) does her best, he proves impossible to placate. As the visit continues, Louis struggles to deal with the fighting amongst his family before he can address his own problem, which none of his family are ready to hear.
Despite taking place in almost real-time and barely leaving the walls of the house, there is a lot of conflict that is hurled at the viewer. In fact, by the time the credits role, you can't help but feel battered into submission by what has essentially been an elongated shouting match. Cassel, Seydoux and Baye all hurl themselves into their roles at maximum volume, but the most impressive performances come from Cotillard and Ulliel, whose restraint is a refreshing contrast to the vivid bellowing of the other characters. Subtle and nuanced, their characters are much more interesting in how little they say in response to their counterparts' torrent of confrontations. It's rare that the withdrawn characters outplay the showier parts, but Cotillard especially captivates with an enigmatic intelligence that seems somehow alien in this otherwise brainless character.
Adapting from a play-text is usually a difficult task. Especially when taking a naturalistic piece with unities of time and place, it becomes difficult to shake off that theatrical form. Engaging though It's Only The End Of The World is, it doesn't really succeed in finding anything cinematic to add any real depth to the text itself. The scenes are long, as you might expect, so Dolan has attempted to insert short montage sequences and flashbacks to broaden our understanding of the family more, but to limited effect. Clashing somewhat with the length of the scenes between which these are sandwiched, they feel tacked on as only a vague attempt to justify crossing mediums.
Similarly, it becomes obvious early on that Louis is going to have a one-on-one scene with each of the characters, climaxing with his confrontation with Antoine and a family stand-off. Formulaic right until the 89th minute, this recipe is somewhat over-simple, feeling like a simplified ode to American Beauty. 'Canadian Beauty', maybe? But then came the final shot, which still baffles me now. And if anybody has any theories about that, I would LOVE to hear them.
For a film about AIDS (though Ulliel never states it, it's pretty clear this is the disease he is suffering from), it's interesting to see this used as a backdrop against which the other stories are played out, instead of vice versa. And while the characters assume that Louis left home because of his sexuality, it's refreshing to see that it's not homosexuality that's actually the issue here, it's the abuse of his older brother. So as a 'gay film', it's actually a film that is only incidentally gay, just like Dolan's previous work.
It's Only The End Of The World is an interesting movie with a handful of fantastic performances. Though I'm yet to see Cotillard turn in a bad performance, this is definitely one of her strongest to date. And Gaspard Ulliel (the sexiest man to have played Hannibal Lector) has blossomed from teen idol to serious actor flawlessly. Though not to the standard of Dolan's earlier films, it makes for engaging viewing... especially if you like watching people scream at each other.
OUT NOW ON DVD AND ON DEMAND.