‘I have a lot of admiration for films that really seem to know how to tell stories and tell them right without taking huge detours showing us how good the film-maker is. The more I tell stories myself, the more I make movies myself, the more I try to get closer to that.’
So says Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan, and if this message reads with a peculiar mix of self-awareness and humility, it’s justified by his latest film, It’s Only the End of the World. True to his word, it contains few of the directorial flourishes that Dolan insists he is moving away from, the attention-grabbing moments of artistic indulgence like the switch of aspect ratio towards the end of Mommy (2014).
Some things haven’t changed, though. The method of filming may be subtler, but its histrionic subject-matter means that It’s Only the End of the World is recognisably a Xavier Dolan film. Right from his debut, I Killed My Mother (2009), his films have been typified by the antagonism their characters feel towards each other, those complex dysfunctions of family life which mean that the people who love each other the most can only verbalise their feelings by yelling at each other at the tops of their lungs.
Based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, the film shows a family preparing for the return of a prodigal son, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a successful poet who hasn’t been home in over a decade. Awaiting him are his short-fused boor of a brother, Antoine (Vincent Cassel), and his shy, uncertain wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard), Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), the younger sister who barely remembers him, and his overbearing mother (Nathalie Baye). Louis has some bad news to tell them, but in the middle of all the shouting he finds it difficult.
As the film is shot relatively simply, the dramatic heavy lifting is left to the impressive cast. Fully aware of the talent in front of the camera, Dolan shoots much of the film in sweaty, claustrophobic close-ups. As much as this has divided critics since its world premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, it provides a direct connection between the characters and the audience. Despite their best attempts to hide them, all the frustrations, insecurities, and disappointments of each family member are vividly written across their faces. Even in relative moments of tranquillity – of which there are few – the hesitant speeches and pointed glances expose turbulent souls.
It’s Only the End of the World feels like the purest of Xavier Dolan’s work to date, a familiar story stripped to its raging core. The sparseness of its look and its narrative makes for a challenging – but not difficult – watch. There are no huge detours, as Dolan phrases it, but he still manages to include some gorgeous artistic notes, such as the fluttering curtain reflected in a teary pupil, and the enigmatic, poetic ending, a golden-hour coda that is equally sad and optimistic. This is not a director’s film, but it is the work of one who fully understands cinema’s storytelling power, and who is unwilling to interfere with that.
More by Xavier Dolan
Mommy (2014) – Dolan’s experimentation with visual form (much of the film is shot in an unusual 1:1 aspect ratio) don’t detract from a painfully raw story about a teenage boy who struggles to connect with his mother. It’s familiar territory for the director but it’s the exciting work of one growing in maturity.