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AFI Fest 30: It’s Only the End of the World

“We’re strangers. Strangers are nothing.”

There’s no doubt that Xavier Dolan is a talented filmmaker. After receiving wider recognition for 2014’s explosive Mommy, Dolan has returned with his most buzzed-about project yet, It’s Only the End of the World. Based on Jean-luc Garace’s play of the same name, Dolan doesn’t borrow from his own biography this time around, but shreds of his identity and style remain present as he treads into familiar territory with a portrait of a dysfunctional family struggling to make sense of one another. It’s Only the End of the World is certainly far from the director/writer’s best work, straying from the grit and intensity of his original material, but the melodramatic story and the misguided direction ultimately benefit significantly from powerful performances by a stacked ensemble.

After twelve years, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is coming home. With an important announcement to make to his family, the time has finally arrived where the playwright has felt any sense of urgency in making an appearance since leaving home at 22. Now, he must regrettably confront them with the announcement of his death. It is never revealed what from, however. As soon as Louis arrives, we discover the long bridges he had forcefully built between himself and his family for many years, making it known that the distance was not only physical, but also deeply emotional.

A familiar, always-reliable set of faces complete the family that Louis had for so long left behind. Suzanne (Lea Seydoux), his much younger sister, displays a childlike excitement about the reemergence of a brother she grew up not knowing. As the only child left in the house, her existence depends upon helping their mother, Martine (Nathalie Baye), and smoking weed to transport her elsewhere, anywhere but in a reality she doesn’t want to live.

On the other hand, there’s Antoine, through which Vincent Cassell delivers yet another compelling performance to add to his repertoire. As the eldest of Martine’s three children, Antoine is hot-tempered, impatient, often demeaning to those around him, but ultimately conceals his own pain deep within himself, unsure of how to confront it. By his side is his wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard), who proves to be the polar opposite of Antoine, the calming yin to his intense, agitated yang. Cotillard makes the most out of a thankless, underwritten role, serving nothing more as an observer of the war zone that is the family reunion.

Not one person in the family can seem to make sense of Louis’s abandonment, which is the lingering elephant in the room that nobody can ignore or resist. The central conflict takes each character by the throat, causing a disagreement or shouting match to occur so often that it feels overwhelming. But perhaps that’s the point. Family reunions, after all, are often unpredictable and difficult, especially when a clashing of lifestyles and values are forced to meet in the middle. This is a family riddled with much pain on every end, and that pain is something they resist resolving together, unable to overcome their respective pride. Unfortunately, despite its attempts, It’s Only the End never quite reaches the lengths it tries to go to, ultimately stopping short of resolution and development.

It’s Only the End of the World is an often painful watch due to its intensity, and despite all the gorgeous imagery Dolan tries to infuse in the middle of the chaos, it sadly isn’t enough to salvage the melodrama. There are times where Dolan makes deeply questionable choices as a director, abruptly piercing the seriousness with a distracting pop song to contrast the heavy imagery. While It’s Only the End of the World is Dolan’s most misguided work so far, the film still benefits from its compelling cast and a filmmaker whose ambitiousness never fails to peek through, even when it is the end of the world.

6/10

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It’s Only the End of the World is playing at AFI Fest in Los Angeles

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Nix Santos is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter @_nixsantos.

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