Director Xavier Dolan on the set
Dolan with cameraman André Turpin on the set
IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD (Juste la fin du monde) A-
Canada France (97 mi) 2016 d: Xavier Dolan
I don’t understand you. But I love you. I love you. No one will take that away from me.
―La mère (Nathalie Baye)
Perhaps critics are tired of the narcissistic inclinations of a bombastic young director who’s been described as a wunderkind, finally drawing a line in the sand and claiming “No mas.” It has been pointed out that Dolan’s films deal with relationship strife, where his earlier films, in chronological order, center upon “a spiteful queer teenager, a love triangle, a man transitioning to become a woman, the aftermath of death, and a teenager with autism,” with near unanimous consent declaring that his most recent work, showing a family imploding upon itself, is a drastically lesser work. The film was mercilessly booed by critics at its press screening in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, especially after it was announced it was awarded the festival’s Grand Prix (2nd place) and also the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, described at the time as “the worst decision Cannes has made in more than 20 years.” Immediately panned by American and British critics, yet raved by French critics (some of which is summed up here: English-speaking critics don't get Xavier Dolan | Montreal Gazette), the reactions were swift and overwhelmingly negative, described as “insufferable, “a screeching melodrama,” his “first total misfire,” “a disaster,” yet conceding it may be his “most mature work (but also his) most unbearable … a frequently excruciating dramatic experience in which characters seem almost never to stop talking.” Perhaps shouting is a more appropriate description, as the play it’s based upon is overwhelmingly suffocating, yet that’s exactly what it’s intended to be, existing in a unique world all its own. Critics rejected it anyway, described as “unfortunately his worst by some distance,” or “It’s like watching assholes scream at each other for two hours,” where Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian was the lone English critic singing the film’s praises, describing it as “histrionic and claustrophobic: deliberately oppressive and pretty well pop-eyed in its madness ― and yet a brilliant, stylised and hallucinatory evocation of family dysfunction: a companion piece in some ways to the epic shouting match that was Dolan’s earlier movie, Mommy. This is a pressure cooker of anxiety, a film with the dials turned up to 12,” while Mark Peranson from Cinema Scope wrote “it’s a one-note film that sets a shrill tone early, never wavers over the course of its mercifully short running time, and is an experience completely bereft of any pleasure or fun, right down to André Turpin’s claustrophobic cinematography. Say what you will about Mommy (2014), but at least it had, as one says in the fashion world, ‘flair’; Juste la fin du monde takes the fun out of dysfunction.” One of the problems at Cannes, or any important festival, is the significance of instant analysis from social media, where critics are expected to spout opinions the minute a film is over, while like-minded viewers all get on their twitter feeds to make their pronouncements, which in this case condemned the film to a swath of uniform negativity, with hateful comments right out of MEAN GIRLS (2004), completely ignoring texture or what the film was about. When The Playlist’s Jessica Kiang wrote, “It suggests a level of martyred self-involvement on Dolan’s part that is tantamount to a persecution complex,” Dolan responded on Twitter, “I’ll be alright, Jess. As long as I ignore your cheap parallelism between a life you don’t know and a play you’ve never read.” Dolan understandably took offense at being dismissed in such a collective fashion, with everyone ganging up at once, describing a mentality he thought was overly personal and unfairly lemming-like. “This is not journalism. It’s gossip. It’s pretending to be a sophisticated analysis, but really it’s cheap psychology.” The only new film at Cannes to be screened on 35mm and not digitally, it was a box office hit in France, becoming Canada’s official submission for Best Foreign Film, reaching the shortlist of nine films, but not the final five.
Never released theatrically in the U.S. (viewed on Netflix), this is only the second Dolan film after 2014 Top Ten List #7 Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme) to be written by someone else, in this case French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce back in 1990, as he was attempting to express the inexpressible, stricken with AIDS and dying from the illness within five years at age 38. Among the subtle changes, the film is spoken entirely in European French and not the more idiomatic and colloquial Québécois language spoken by the French-Canadian director. This was reportedly one of the things that inspired Dolan the most, as if he was experiencing an altogether new play. The overall feeling of doom is the most pervasive influence hovering over the film, haunting and overwhelming everything in sight, like a bulldozer mowing everything down, even the most intricate thoughts. It’s a starkly realistic drama that’s in-your-face most of the time, refusing to allow viewers any air to breathe, literally sucking the life force out of the room, which occurs over and over again, like a record on repeat, reliving the uncomfortable moments all over again. While it’s anything but a crowd pleaser, it’s a dramatic tour-de-force featuring some of France’s best performers, beautifully acted, in some cases working against type, proving to be a powerhouse theatrical work along the lines of Mike Nichols’ Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), as characters are stripped naked and defenseless, at least for a moment, where you substitute booze with being gay and having AIDS, which puts you at a disadvantageous place and keeps you there, often unable to speak. Rivaling the dark tone of family dysfunction (and the yelling and screaming) is Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (2013), which was a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, with Meryl Streep playing one of the vilest characters she’s ever played, where this is a vast improvement over the lackadaisical direction of that film. Dolan turns this into a claustrophobic chamber drama, complete with extreme close-ups, tight framing (no medium establishing shots), with short bursts of dramatic music, cinematography by André Turpin, but it’s what he does with music in brief flashback sequences that adds such a modernist touch, caught in a momentary reverie before jarring jump cut sequences create abrupt mood changes that snap us out of it, slapping us back into the present, yet feeling weak and helpless, unable to drive the narrative, continually feeling like you’re getting eaten alive. Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is a successful gay playwright that decides to return home after an absence of twelve years, where he intends to tell his family the bad news that he’s dying, where that’s awkward enough, but his family is so dysfunctional and temperamental, a picture of volatile emotions and frayed nerves, that they continually self-destruct before he has a chance to reveal anything. The overall sense of alienation is dramatically drawn, not just in time and distance, but in the absence of things we value most, like trust, sharing, or even helping. None of that exists here, as he’s more like a stranger, becoming famous somewhere else, living a mysterious life that involves none of them, where to each and every one of them he’s an open question mark, where the reason for his visit is veiled in uncertainty.
Some of the narrative is a near parallel story to TOM AT THE FARM, where a stranger shows up to visit a family mourning the loss of a son, where the stranger is the ex-lover of the deceased, but his family has been led to believe he had a girlfriend, hiding the fact he was gay. The viciousness of the homophobic aggressiveness coming from the bullying older brother is utterly savage, showing sociopathic tendencies, where Dolan creates a psychological horror thriller out of being gay, with a feverish anti-gay mindset clouding what is in fact a love story that can’t be told. Similarly Louis shows up on the doorstep of a family that doesn’t recognize him, that only hears about him, mourning the tragedy of his own loss, yet he can’t speak the words to any of them, as none of them really know him. Meanwhile he has an older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) who totally resents him, both for being gay and for being sophisticated and successful, where he really doesn’t want to hear anything this guy has to say. When others start sucking up to him, this only sets off his explosive temper, as he can’t stand the phoniness or the attention Louis receives, attacking anyone that tries to open up to him, as if his brother is too important to hear any of this small talk from the provinces, as he’s probably leaving just as quickly as he arrived, where he needs to say what he has to say and then get the hell out and go back to wherever it is in the city that he lives. Antoine works in a tool shop, with little opportunity to realize his dreams, as he’s too busy going to work every day. It’s a routine that never ends. So whenever Louis opens his mouth, Antoine interrupts, claiming he doesn’t want to hear it, as he knows Louis has better things to do. Antoine lays this attitude on each and everyone else, literally barking at people to stop playing games, then takes offense when people continually tell him to shut up, that he’s ruining the moment. While the work is abrasive and infuriating, there is a point to all that back and forth bickering, as in the process souls are stripped bare, untold truths are continually exposed, which only matters if viewers have the patience to explore what’s under the surface. Despite the fireworks, the film is tender to the core, with Dolan creating some magical moments throughout, such as the beaming smile offered by the extraordinarily compassionate Catherine (Marion Cotillard in an utterly haunting performance), Antoine’s mousy and overly timid wife (who’s never met Louis before), an open gesture that welcomes Louis back into his home, but he doesn’t return it, appearing to have more somber things on his mind, which in itself makes a profound statement, wiping that smile right off Catherine’s face, revealing the gravity of the moment which perhaps only she understands. The dismal tone recalls Ozon’s TIME TO LEAVE (2005), which features an aging Jeanne Moreau, yet it is the youngest character in the film who learns of their fate and is literally a march to death, where the impending threat of doom pervades throughout every frame of that film.
Nathalie Baye plays the tyrannical mother, the omniscient dictator over the misfits, another Dolan portrait of an overbearing mother, this time dizzyingly artificial, a self-centered diva drowning herself in garish makeup and outlandish costumes (all chosen by Dolan, of course, who also does his own editing and English subtitles), seemingly more at home in a Tennessee Williams play, as lost as Blanche Dubois, yet she’s constantly serving various delights out of the kitchen, as if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. While Antoine is the battering ram older brother, annihilating everything in his path, Léa Seydoux is Suzanne, the trippy younger sister who idolizes her older brother that she barely knows, while Catherine spends much of time being the gracious host that no one else wants to be, overly polite, constantly apologizing for saying the wrong thing, brashly critiqued by her loud-mouthed husband, though she’s the closest thing to meeting Louis on the same wavelength, tender and mostly quiet, keeping to herself, intuitively adding a touch of introspection to the family. What’s written into the storyline is just how nervous the family members are, all overly anxious, like walking in bare feet on hot coals, acting so unlike themselves, supposedly, getting ready for the arrival of Louis as the prodigal son returns, making more of the situation, trying to be so exact and precise, not wanting to disappoint, where every word takes on a new significance, with Catherine accidentally calling him sir, which sends her husband off into another tirade, yet that’s what this play is all about, the effect Louis has on everyone, just how uncomfortable he makes them feel, saying things they don’t mean, or talking endlessly about nothing. The utter superficiality on display is stunning, yet there are moments of plainspoken lucidity where you can cut the tension with a knife, where the words pierce through the armor with deadly accuracy, becoming phenomenally truthful, even hurtful, making Louis shrink back into himself, retreating into silence and resignation, where it’s clear some know exactly who he is (Antoine and his mother), having experienced living with him before, recalling his moods and just how difficult it was, while others are enthralled by his very presence (Catherine and Suzanne). Dolan mixes flashback sequences into the mix, slo-mo, also pop songs, which are among the strongest scenes of the film, as they’re just as overpowering, balancing overtly forceful scenes with quiet and delicate moments. Louis himself is an extremely compelling character as viewers know his intentions, and see how easily sidetracked he gets, remaining isolated and fragile, making a quick phone call to his boyfriend before getting worn down by the friction that resides in his own family. Bathed in an orange light, like a final sunset, the finale may as well be a tribute to uncompromising French director Maurice Pialat, whose presence near the end of À Nos Amours (To Our Loves) (1983) creates unexpected havoc, uprooting standard decorum, instilling a sense of mayhem flying in the face of reason, forcing conventionality out the window, yet creating an intensity level that’s off the charts, as the room spins totally out of control.