Directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, Nathalie Baye
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Review by Oscar Jelley
No-one does awkwardness quite like Xavier Dolan.
He is a director who can transform the stilted interaction of two people in a room into a sort of filmic haiku, with a commitment to a classical form of drama that succeeds on the strength of its stars and its script alone. His last film, Mommy, delivered a blend of rage, wit and deep-seated discomfort in what remains one of the crowning cinematic achievements of the decade. His ouevre as a whole showcases a keen eye for the nuance of everyday conflicts and a gleeful talent for hyperbole. In short, Dolan is not a man with anything to prove.
To some extent, then, his latest film is no great departure from the norm. It’s Only The End Of The World concerns a young playwright, Louis, who is about to die, and has chosen an arbitrary Sunday to drop in on his estranged family and share the news. Frustration is in the air: each character has their own peculiarities, and the atmosphere is such that every word feels leaden and dangerous. Most notable is the rift between Louis (an understated Gaspard Ulliel) and his coarse older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel, who seethes with unbridled irritation throughout). Antoine despises his writerly sibling, a man he sees as quiet and smug with no time for his own mundane, blue-collar existence. Léa Seydoux’s Suzanne is a picture of earnestness for the brother she never met, but harbours a deep dissatisfaction with her own life. Marion Cotillard’s Catherine is married to Antoine, who subjects her to various forms of verbal abuse, and Nathalie Baye is the matriarch whose twinkling, bubbly exterior is barely skin deep. So far, so dysfunctional.
Excruciating conversations abound, with lines that overlap and crash into each other in an agonising fashion. Sometimes they reveal too much, sometimes too little. Throughout these encounters, Dolan keeps the camera trained upon his characters’ faces, incrementally building the claustrophobia until it is deeply uncomfortable and we too are complicit in the nail-biting anxiety of it all. These scenes are Xavier Dolan’s bread and butter, and at this point in his career they must be a reflex second only to breathing.
If so, then the film suffers from a case of hyperventilation as it nears its climax. The level of bitterness on show becomes hard to stomach and slightly baffling, and the eventual denouement is a source of confusion; new alliances and hatreds seem to arise from nowhere as characters behave increasingly erratically and the mood turns sour. The ending tries very hard to thrill, to fizz and to lurch: but it feels undeserved, not reflective of what came before.
In the end, moments of palpable tension cannot save a film that seems incoherent and curiously lacking in soul. It might be awkward to say, but at the end of the day, it’s only a subpar Xavier Dolan film.