TIFF Review: 'It's Only the End of the World'

It’s Only the End of the World (Just la fin du monde)
(Canada/France, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel
Courtesy of TIFF
Forget the Cannes critics. Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World is actually quite good.  The Quebecois director follows the exhilarating career-high of Mommy with this difficult chamber drama, so whatever project followed such a masterwork would inevitably suffer from the weight of expectations. World is a fine film in its own right,  albeit a very challenging one,  and it requires a great deal of patience and emotional investment from viewers as Dolan puts the audience in a vice grip and lets them breathe only after tapping three. The effect is one of extraordinary release. While It's Only the End of the World is often utter hell to sit through, coming up for air rarely feels so good. 

The film marks a different turn for Dolan both aesthetically and narratively, and it's probably for the best that he follows the high point of his career by trying something new. This claustrophobic adaptation of the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce recalls Tracy Letts' August: Osage County and the screen version by John Wells as it corrals a dysfunctional family into a sweltering house for a few good hours of screaming and yelling.  The cause for celebration is the return of the prodigal son Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), who comes home after a 12-year absence to tell his family that he is dying. Cue the screaming.

Louis’s household is a fairly ordinary family. His mother (Nathalie Baye) is a loud, flamboyant woman. With her lacquered nails and vulgar finger foods, the mother (who remains nameless) could easily be the sister of Anne Dorval’s Die from Mommy. Her elder son, Antoine (Vincent Cassel) could just as easily be the grown-up version of Antoine Olivier Pilon’s Steve from the same film, as he’s an adult wild child—a hotheaded man with roaring energy and no productive outlet with which to release it. Antoine, naturally, is the primary source of all the screaming and yelling as the return of his brother, with whose sexuality he is extremely uncomfortable, puts him on edge. The eldest son eggs on his mother and brother, but the primary target for all his simmering rage is his stammering doormat of a wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard), who bashfully becomes an ally for Louis in this hostile territory.

The youngest sibling, Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) is just as prone to scrap and spit as her bigger brother is. Suzanne still lives at home and clearly itches to escape the suburban malaise with which her mother is perfectly comfortable. The poor mother, a shrill but well-intentioned matriarch, puts up quite the spread in celebration of having the family altogether again, but the day is an all-you-can-eat buffet of pent-up anger. What family get-together isn’t full of tension and awkwardness?

There’s little to no mention of Louis’s and this absence lies at the heart of Dolan’s adaptation. It’s Only the End of the World is the talkiest script of Dolan’s career, and the writing ranks as one of his better screenplays, for the adaptation sees the characters spew endless chatter to fill the uncomfortable silence in which they’re all vulnerable. Note how frequently they ask Louis about the comfort of his flight or how often someone comments on the heat. Awkward babble keeps everyone safe.

The power of the film lives in the pauses between the dialogue and the delivery of the empty drivel the characters speak. The few seconds of silence are wrought with sadness. A quintet of powerhouse performances fuels the raw, searing power of It’s Only the End of the World as the five actors collaborate to create a broken family in desperate need of repair. Ulliel is a strong and reserved presence who quietly respects the urgency of the situation, while Cassel’s percolating machismo fills the screen with tension. Baye’s maternal role screams Anne Dorval, but the French star nevertheless fills the role with chattering fervor and Seydoux’s stormy sister is an unexpected jolt of life. Cotillard, finally, is a quietly heartbreaking presence as Dolan uses her watery doe eyes to great effect as the abundance of close-ups in the film swell with energy.

As with Mommy, the frames of It’s Only the End of the World burst with emotion. Rather than shoot another film in novel 1:1 square aspect ratio, Dolan films the drama in conventional widescreen, but the coverage favours close-ups and tight framing. This aesthetic draws various layers of power from the actors as their subtle facile expressions speak against the words they banter. The truth of this family lives in what goes unsaid within the chatter.

The tight frames also give It’s Only the End of the World its undeniably excruciating claustrophobia. This home suffocates a visitor from the moment one enters the door. One only needs to be in close proximity to these characters for a few moments to realise why Louis had to escape. Dolan uses the oppressive space of the film to create an overwhelming swell of catharsis and release in the film’s final act as he moves the action out of the house for a brief, adrenaline-charged interlude before returning to the scene of the crime for a grim. The final images are a grim reminder that staying in this country home would have been the death of the prodigal son. The last twenty minutes provide some of the most overwhelmingly powerful drama you'll see this year.

It’s Only the End of the World differs from much of the Dolan canon by favouring dowdy interiors and by eschewing visual flourishes as the director and DP André Turpin let the actors’ faces do the talking and the depth of the 35mm stock capture their full range of subtle longing. The soundtrack, however, is signature Dolan with a great mixtape of 1990s pop songs and forgotten wonders transporting millennials back to their days of youth. One fleeting moment of happiness in which Louis remembers a former flame, meanwhile, gives a buoyant interlude of ecstatic sparkle and Dolan flair.  It’s Only the End of the World is Dolan’s most restrained and demanding film, but it’s also one of his most rewarding ones. 

It’s Only the End of the World screens:
-Sunday, Sept. 18 at 9:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

It opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sept. 23 and in Ottawa at The ByTowne on Sept. 30.

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
Please visit www.tiff.net for more information.

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