All families are dysfunctional. But this is a Xavier Dolan family – and therefore about as dysfunctional as they get. It’s Only the End of the World is 27-year-old Dolan’s sixth feature, and, if he proved his maturity with Mommy, his most recent film shows he is definitely here for the long haul. Here we have a 90-minute long slagging match under the guise of a classical tragedy and it is brilliant, relentless, and catastrophic.
Based on a French play, Jean-Luc Lagarce’s Juste la fin du monde, the film shows Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a writer, heading home after a 12-year absence to break the news to his family that he is dying. This would be simple, or at least as simple as such a conversation can be, if his family were ‘normal’ – but of course they are not. His mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) is a hilarious, needy woman who desperately tries to keep her family from killing each other. His younger sister, Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), barely remembers Louis and is desperate for this snippet of time together. Elder brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is an obtuse bully. And Catherine (Marion Cotillard), his long-suffering wife, tries to be pleasant but instead can only stutter and stumble. What happens when Louis joins the mix is an explosion that makes you laugh, cry, and want to strangle them all.
The A-list cast that Dolan has assembled pays off. Baye is remarkable, presenting Martine as a loveable, if slightly batty, mother who cares deeply but is just as wound up in herself as the rest of them. Seydoux, too, stands out, giving Suzanne a touching naivety under her hard front. The setting is just claustrophobic enough – we aren’t trapped in one room, yet everywhere is suffocating: the kitchen is barely big enough to contain them, a car has no escape, a garden shed is dark and secretive. The camera rests closely on each character’s face, allowing little room for movement. As the day gets hotter, the jibes become increasingly inflammatory. Just when the storm breaks and we think we will have respite, the heat comes back even stronger and the light dips to a sticky, oppressive, orange glow.
The entire scenario echoes the Sartre play No Exit, but here it is not the judgement of others that constitutes every man’s hell, but rather each character’s own insufferable inability to listen. Indeed, if the film is a classical play, then it is this that is the tragedy. Antoine admits outright that he never listens to anyone and Martine also struggles to make herself understood. “My word’s don’t matter,” she laments, and, of course, they don’t. Louis, too, is completely unable to communicate what he came to say and his family doesn’t want to hear it in any case, despite asking several times why he has come back. Occasionally, though, in the pauses between the shouting, there are some beautiful moments, which hint at a slight connection between the family members. As Martine and Suzanne dance to O’Zone’s eurotrash hit Dragostea Din Tei in the kitchen it is distinctly reminiscent of the scene in Mommy where mother and son dance to Celine Dion – funny, yet painfully sad.
The film is not without its faults and, sadly, isn’t quite as impressive as Mommy. It falls back on cliché with a dreamlike, drug-taking flashback, the downfall of Dolan’s first two films and a trait I hope he will soon abandon. The very end, too, is trite and too overtly allegorical. Small gripes aside, however, It’s Only the End of the World is touching, painful, and explosive, and only makes me more excited for what the Canadian director will bring us in the future.
It’s Only the End of the World screens at the BFI London Film Festival 2016.
Words by Imogen Robinson