Xavier Dolan’s sixth feature film, It’s Only the End of the World, had its Australian premiere at Sydney Film Festival from a precarious position. Arriving from Cannes with a pair of strange, if increasingly common bedfellows – widespread critical derision and the Grand Prix prize – it’s perched on a pedestal that demands either full-throated defence or gleeful denunciation. Of course, things aren’t as binary as that. To paraphrase Mitch Hedberg, you’re either going to love it or hate it … or think it’s ooookay.
After some reflection, I find myself in the third camp. The virulent backlash from the south of France feels motivated more by Dolan’s contentious public persona – prone to sulking and whinging and unabashed egotism – than a fair assessment of the film proper. (Granted, Dolan’s dummy spit response to the initial reviews didn’t do him any favours, but I’ll admit to preferring that sort of over-emotional reaction to dizzyingly dry press interviews.) But It’s Only the End of the World is only okay, neither the disaster you’ve heard nor the masterpiece you might’ve hoped for.
The story, adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s 1990 play of the same name, exists in the queer domestic melodrama milieu that has dominated Dolan’s oeuvre (give or take a Tom at the Farm). Our protagonist, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), is introduced catching a plane home to a family he hasn’t seen in over a decade to “announce [his] death.” After a stirring montage of crumbling Canadian suburban homes, we’re introduced to his family: Nathalie Baye as his garishly-decorated mother (in, essentially, the ‘Anne Dorval role’); Vincent Cassel as Antoine, his brusque, “brutal” brother; Marion Cotillard as Catherine, Antoine’s timid wife; and Léa Seydoux as Louis’ (presumably) teenaged sister, Suzanne.
The film’s aesthetic draws from the melodramatic conventions that have dominated Dolan’s work. Bright colours are twisted into something overtly tacky; Louis’ family’s dresses and dips and over-applied makeup are like worn wallpaper over a shabby shack. The family house’s décor is dominated by warm browns more smothering than welcoming. Cinematographer André Turpin seems to be revisiting Mommy’s claustrophobic portraiture, isolating each character in close-ups heightened by extremely shallow focus and exaggerated lighting.
Early Cannes reports had me expecting fractious family fights from the get-go – “shrill” seemed to be the go-to adjective in every review – but instead It’s Only the End of the World initially shies away from the full-blown confrontations suggested by the melodramatic trappings. The whole-family encounters are brief, awkward, and dominated by Cassel’s character’s defensive outbursts, with the screenplay preferring to pair up Louis and his family members one at a time. He chats to Catherine about children, to Suzanne about postcards, to Antoine about airports, to his mother about time.
I think these one-on-one conversations – that dominate the film’s 97 minute runtime – are what drags It’s Only the End of the World down. The reliance on close-ups – perhaps a side effect of the film’s truncated productions schedule? – is presumably intended to intensify Louis’s sense of disconnection from a family he hasn’t seen in years and years. But it also serves to disconnect the audience from his characters, whose relationships are muddied by the monotonous compositions and pedestrian dialogue. Too many interchanges cry out for the kind of flourishes defining Dolan’s previous films, moments that sing in harmony with his influences and his characters and his actors. Instead, he leans heavily on his cast, all of whom produce solid performances that cry out for something more than the surface level.
That said, it’s not like Dolan doesn’t try to diversify his visual palette in these exchanges. In each one-on-one chat, the film eases into these syrupy slow-motion sequences (à la Heartbeats) that drag out unspoken moments of connection – or disconnection – into heightened emotionality. At least, that’s the intent. But for each bravura sequence – Louis plummeting into a whirlpool of memories as he presses his face to his old mattress – there’re uses of slow motion that just hang there, limply. An extended, wordless moment between Cotillard and Ulliel falls into this category. It opens up a chasm that should fill with feeling, but instead I found myself drifting off.
While these syrupy moments of elongated time were hit-and-miss for me, my drifting off lead me to ruminate on the possibility of a deeper purpose. Given the play’s premise – and its enigmatic coda – is Dolan really attempting to tell a story about arrested time? About the way time passes and dies and means everything and nothing all at once? About how you return to somewhere that you haven’t been in ages, and it’s exactly the same and totally different, two distinct images superimposed and utterly disorienting.
Well, maybe. But the more I think on It’s Only the End of the World, the more I think that my search for intentionality, for deeper meaning, is a futile one. It’s an impulse driven by a critical imperative to take a stand, and my modest contrarian impulses encourage me to throw myself in front of Dolan’s precarious pedestal and shout “You’ve all missed the point!” And maybe we have. Maybe the film is intended to be less about this family than about the elusiveness of time and the past. Or maybe it’s intended to be about how Louis is trying to stage a play of his own, with his family the players, but the words fail and the ending never arises. Maybe.
But maybe I’m trying too hard here. Maybe this is just a story about a dysfunctional family in denial over their son’s queerness, a story about saying goodbye without being able to say goodbye. I suspect my over-intellectualising of Dolan’s slow motion is motivated by the same assumptions that led Cannes critics to vicious demolition. By his sixth film, I expect more from Dolan than another heightened story of familial conflict, the very genre with which he cut his teeth. But that’s not a reasonable expectation, and if I struggle to hold onto a more abstract intentionality it’s, I suspect, because there’s nothing to hold on to in the first place.
So what does this leave? By and large, a film that fails to live up to its potential. The film’s take on queerness, for instance, feels confused. To some extent, that’s the point, the disparity between Louis’ family’s overt acceptance and implicit discomfort when it comes to his sexuality. Yet the motivating factor for Louis’ visit – his impending death, implicitly due to AIDS – is muddied by Dolan’s choice to obscure his story’s time period.
The political and physical connotations of an AIDS diagnosis in 1990 and 2015 aren’t entirely disparate, but they’re certainly different, and Dolan’s choice to incorporate contemporary music (Grimes, Foals, O-Zone) and his beloved flip phones leaves the film feeling adrift. What does it do to Lagarce’s play – written, remember, by a playwright who passed away from AIDS – to bring it forward a quarter of a century? That doesn’t seem to be a question Dolan is interested in answering or even engaging with.
I have to credit fellow critic Laurence Barber with identifying It’s Only the End of the World’s primary failing, however – its misapplication of genre. Dolan’s filmography is demonstrative of a director intensely familiar with the grammar and politics of melodrama. Yet it feels ill-suited to this material, its heightened tone jarring with the small-scale domesticity of Lagarce’s tale. Melodrama is about bold emotions, big narratives and cathartic revelations, yet It’s Only the End of the World dwells in subtle interchanges (aside from Cassel’s character) and unspoken secrets. This isn’t a melodrama, it’s a drama, and Dolan’s reclamation of the material – while occasionally inspired – never entirely recovers from this misidentification.
This is a director whose work, at its best, connects the brightness and brashness of melodrama with the idiosyncratic messiness of human emotions. Yet here, the aesthetic and emotions are disconnected. For those whose own experiences resonate with the story Dolan’s telling here, perhaps this chasm can be bridged. But for the rest of us, we’re left with an uneven film that sabotages its own potential. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a disappointment.