Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World Is the Most Disappointing Film at Cannes – Vanity Fair

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If you were a theater major at any point in the last 20 years, you’re probably familiar with the gay plays of the 1990s, a once fecund genre that arose as a reaction to the AIDS crisis that ravaged gay communities—and thus the performing arts—for over a decade. Many of these plays (like American works by Nicky Silver, Terrence McNally, etc.) are autobiographical, or at least self-referencing, putting a tragic, misunderstood, gay creative type at the center. As is true of all genres, the quality of these plays ranges wildly, but they’re all a vital part of theater history, necessary documents of an era just before gayness became a comfortably mainstream political issue.

Thus they are, I think, owed a certain degree of reverence. We can interrogate these works—perhaps starting with their decidedly white, cisgender point of view—but these plays are important, these wails and keens and plaints from a harrowing time. Which is why it’s frustrating to see what director Xavier Dolan does with his new film, It’s Only the End of the World, adapted from the 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, who died of AIDS complications in 1995. (I was not familiar with the play prior to the film, but my research suggests that it fits comfortably into the genre described above.)

It’s Only the End of the World is about a gay playwright returning to his volatile family after a 12-year absence to tell them that he’s dying. This raw, melodramatic form seems a perfect fit for someone of Dolan’s sensibilities. A daring, indulgent prodigy darling of the international film world, Dolan is, on paper, well suited to grapple with the gay dramatists who slightly preceded him, and despite everything, this film contributes to an important dialogue. Gayness is nothing if not a system of generational conference and exchange, and today’s younger gay people would be wise to investigate, through art or otherwise, the traumas that their newfound freedoms were born of. I’m glad Dolan has at least done that—sort of. In abandoning the context of the play’s era, It’s Only the End of the World strips itself of its potential power.

It’s perhaps a sign of changed times that Dolan does not zero in on the history of it all—frankly, the AIDS of it all—and instead focuses on the generic family strife and tragic special snowflake-ism that these plays employed to house darker, more urgent themes. It’s Only the End of the World remains steadfastly vague about time and place (a title card at the beginning tells us only that this story takes place “somewhere, a while ago already,” and there is a flip phone in one scene), which was true of the play as well. But Dolan stringently avoids any allusion to AIDS or, more detrimentally, to the time period of the play’s conception. So all that remains is the screaming family brawl, with a beautiful, doomed, tortured artist at the storm’s center. It’s a post-gay interpretation of a furious missive from recent gay history—but without that crucial context, all that fury signifies nothing.

Dolan’s incredibly misjudged film is overcome with pretension, made all the more frustrating by its glimpses of his obvious talents. A few sequences in It’s Only the End of the World—most of them dreamy, music-video flashbacks—are stunning, and are invocations of Dolan’s previous triumphs, particularly his 2014 Cannes wonder Mommy. (A terrific burst of cinematic verve that every one of you should see if you haven’t yet.) But they arrive amidst a hideous clamor of pointless yelling and shoddy character work, cruel teases of a poignant, vibrant movie that could have been if Dolan wasn’t so stymied by someone else’s story. (Previously, Dolan worked with Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard to adapt Bouchard’s play Tom at the Farm to film. Perhaps having Bouchard around to collaborate was an important factor that kept that film afloat.)

It’s Only the End of the World is scored, puckishly, by Dolan’s trademark blaring instrumentals and throwback pop tunes. (The final song cue is so startlingly terrible that it almost plays as parody.) The camera stays close on the actors’ faces, creating a sense of domestic claustrophobia that really didn’t need any reiterating. That tightness and anxiety is already there in the words, as Louis, a city-dwelling playwright of some renown (he’s played by French dreamboat Gaspard Ulliel), arrives home and sends his family reeling, while they all pathetically try to have a nice visit. The bickering starts immediately and rarely relents, Louis’s mother, Martine (Nathalie Baye), hovering and nattering, his sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) smoking and pouting, his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) yelling at everyone to shut up. These are the roughest sketches of characters, all there to swirl around Louis while he tries to muster the courage to inform his family of his plight. I think we’re supposed to understand the motivations here—why Louis is so maddeningly tight-lipped, why Antoine is so hideously angry—but it’s all muddled and confusing and, for all its all-caps bellowing, badly articulated. Maybe this is a problem of the source material, but Dolan’s abundant, unthoughtful flourishes certainly don’t help matters any.

One of the most dismaying things about It’s Only the End of the World is how it puts a dream-team cast of French film royalty to such waste. Ulliel has almost nothing to play, Dolan keeping him penned up in a wordless, dazed reverie. Baye is forced to deliver clunker after cliched clunker as Martine. Seydoux is simply made to rotely adore the beautiful, pained artist brother who abandoned the family when she was a little girl. (Nonetheless, hers is the most convincing character in the film, though that’s not saying much.) Cassel is given the unenviable task of trying to wrestle some kind of human being out of Antoine’s vague, bellicose bluster. (His is one of the most annoying characters I’ve seen on-screen in some time.) These actors are all very talented, so they each manage a few nice moments in the film. But ultimately they’re sunk, drowning in Dolan’s onanistic orgy along with any of Lagarce’s insights into looming death or family dynamics.

Perhaps worst served, though, is Marion Cotillard, who plays Catherine, Antoine’s suffering wife, a timid, stammering little bird of a thing who somehow detects the dark truth of Louis—it’s implied that she knows he’s dying. (She can see this because she, like Louis, is an outsider, too, I guess. But Ulliel is made-up to look pretty damn sick, so it’s unclear why no one else asks him if he’s feeling O.K. At one point Martine even tells Louis that he looks good. Which is demonstrably untrue!) Cotillard seems so lost in the character—with all her fluttering and misspeaking—that you start pitying her more than Catherine, or Louis. By the end of the film, all I was hoping was that Cotillard made it out alive.

I could go on about what this film gets wrong—its ham-handed cuckoo-clock motif meant to symbolize Louis’s fleeting time, its almost incomprehensible English subtitles—but I think it’s best to just put this mess behind us and look forward, with an uneasier optimism than before, to what Dolan does next. He got this disaster out of his system, the world didn’t end (but, man, is this film a letdown), and now the future awaits. Though, I’m a bit concerned that his next film, shooting this summer, is reported to be a look at fame starring many American (and British) celebrities. Dolan proves in It’s Only the End of the World that, at only 27, he still has trouble seeing past his own nose. If he was so thwarted by recent history, how will he handle Hollywood?


Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World Is the Most Disappointing Film at Cannes – Vanity Fair