2016 AFI FILM FEST: Even filmmaker Xavier Dolan said in his opening remarks that he did not love the source material of “It’s Only the End of the World” on first glance. There are many things in it to turn one off, namely the unabashed stream of barbs that swing from the mouths of the five principal characters. It’s also not as if Dolan made the film more accessible or toned down. Shot almost exclusively in close up, the film doesn’t “open up” the play. It closes it up to the point of claustrophobia. So why did it work for me?
Famed writer and prized prodigal son Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) has returned home, after a notable 12 year absence, to inform his family about his terminal illness. Already an irascible bunch to begin with, his family members have their axes sharpened the minute Louis walks through the door. His brother, Antoine (Vincent Cassel), seems to be on the verge of violent rage each time he opens his mouth. His wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard), is a gentle woman becoming more distraught and, in a way, numb to the negativity at the core of her marriage. Louis’ sister, Suzanne (Lea Seydoux), is an irascible stoner who fights to be toe to toe with her brothers. The crumbling ruins of a family are all maintained by the matriarch, Martine (Nathalie Baye). Her particularly biting form of love gives great context into how these siblings all turned out the way they did.
Dolan’s direction is as alienating as it is effective. There’s a frustration in not having wide shots to show these world class actors spar with each other. However, the intensity of the close framing makes every character’s move cataclysmic. It’s a fair, if uncomfortable, trade off.
The lighting design of the film also catches one off guard. It establishes a dark, murky tone with its muted color palate. The sun-soaked second half lulls you into a false sense of comfort. The film continues to pull the rug from under you, emotionally speaking.
Some of the more art house riffs and attempts at visual symbolism are a bit more clumsy in execution. The family cuckoo clock plays an integral visual role in the third act that seems a bit reaching. However, Dolan’s skill as a director lies in how he unites all the actors to coalesce with his specific vision.
The actors are all uniformly astounding. On first glance, each character appears to be a caricature of sorts. The favorite child, the screw up, the perpetually angry son and the put upon wife are all stock characters we’ve seen before. However, the actors convey their depth from scene one. Little ticks illustrate this, such as the specific ways Martine treats each of her children differently in both language and the way her face perks up. Their familiarity is even more starkly contrasted by the interactions between Catherine and Louis, who had previously never met.
Ulliel does a great job of serving as our empathetic entry point in this madhouse of a family. His goodness and smile may at times be hyperbolic or symbolized to glaring effect. However, it is still a well thought out and effective performance. Cassel and Seydoux both add interesting layers to their prickly characters. Despite being in scream mode for 90 percent of the film, they manage to find the turning points needed to make their characters effective. Best in show would have to go to Nathalie Baye as Martine. Her character is not just blissfully unaware of how her actions shaped her children, she’s aggressively running from this insight. Her love may be the toughest barb of the film, one that ties these deeply unhappy people together against their better judgment.
“It’s Only the End of the World” will be a frustrating film for most people. It presses buttons, sometimes needlessly so. Yet, it once again validates the skill that Dolan possesses as a director. Perhaps this is one of those films that will find its audience and shining moment years down the road. For now, it remains an interesting and arresting film whose sound and fury may cloud some very good work.