Xavier Dolan becomes the Roland Emmerich of melodrama with his apocalyptic family reunion in It’s Only the End of the World. Not even a single plate gets smashed as a French family collide over a single day, but the emotional devastation is worth more than a thousand alien spaceships smashing their way into the planet. It might not really be the end of the world, but for these characters, there may never be another chance for them to express their heightened emotions.
For writer Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) however, time is most definitely running out. With his terminal illness weighing heavily on his mind, Louis returns to his family home after a twelve year absence to tell his mother, brother and sister that he is dying. His older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is filled with resentment for everyone around him, younger sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) barely knows the brother who left when she was only a child and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard) is meeting Louis for the first time. As tensions boil between the siblings, Louis must find the right time to deliver his devastating news.
But even before Louis can get many words out of his mouth, his oblivious family have plenty to say. The script is an actor’s dream with each character getting their moment to command the screen. Ulliel does so much with just his reactions, while Both Seydoux and Nathalie Baye get to show much deeper layers to their mother and daughter than are originally suggested. But hold on tight for Vincent Cassel who starts the film as a distant, almost comical presence. But when his performance is given the freedom to finally explode, it's so good that the film has nowhere else to go.
Dolan offers his cast no way of hiding, deploying a consistent set of stylistic techniques to enhance all these gut-wrenching performances. Claustrophobic close-ups dominate, with all the characters’ faces revealed in excruciating detail. You can even see the sweat beads forming as the day grows hotter and tempers reach boiling point. But even as the script allows us to get under the skin of each of these characters, out of focus shots and fading sound keep pulling us back into the mind of Louis who is clearly drowning beneath all his family’s emotional outbursts.
While hooking you in with the promise of Louis’ eventual revelation, It's Only the End of the World explores other issues more fully than its protagonist dealing with terminal illness. It’s emotional impact comes from the family left behind by Louis, the children who remained behind with their mother and the mother who wants nothing more than to retell old stories of happier times gone by. But any fleeting happiness is quickly tempered throughout, whether it's by the overarching sadness of Louis’ secret or Cassel puncturing any joy with his own sullen outbursts.
In the end, It’s Only the End of the World isn't really about life and death situations. It's about a dysfunctional family imploding under everyday emotional strains. But don't be fooled; in its performances and deep sadness, it's explosive in a way Emmerich could only ever dream of.
IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD / CERT: TBA
DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: XAVIER DOLAN / STARRING: NATHALIE BAYE, VINCENT
CASSEL, MARION COTILLARD, LEA SEYDOUX, GASPARD ULLIEL / RELEASE DATE: TBA