Oh, Xavier Dolan. How is it possible that there is a filmmaker so talented, yet so unbelievably messy in some of his cinematic pursuits? I jumped at the opportunity to watch It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde) while I was in Europe, and I have to say that despite thinking it was a convoluted, confusing and pretentious mess, it was actually a very entertaining film, and proves that Xavier Dolan is one of the most strangely talented young filmmakers working today, and while it may not be a masterpiece like Mommy, It’s Only the End of the World is a tremendously interesting film.
The film is centered around Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a writer who discovers that he is dying. He returns home to inform his family, but ultimately discovers that he can’t tell them that he is dying, because despite seemingly abandoning them to live his own life, he is the very fabric that holds his volatile family together. Through interactions with his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel), his mother (Nathalie Baye), his brother’s wife, Catherine (Marion Cottilard) and his younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), Louis realizes that simply informing his family of his impending death and plans to swiftly leave is not plausible, because his family desperately needs him. It may sound like a pleasant and hopeful story (and in a way, it is), but it is certainly a pretty depressing film, and like all good family melodramas, it is filled with quiet moments and commentary on the meaning of relationships.
Where to start with this film? To be perfectly clear, It’s Only the End of the World is not a bad film in any way. It is actually a pretty good film, and there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with it – rather, it was a powerfully messy film, and basically, it was a bit of a disaster (yes, contradictory to call it both a good film and a disaster, but once you’ve seen this film, you can understand what I mean when I say a film can be both). It was all over the place, and the motivations of characters were not always sketched out in such a way that they were likable, or realistic. This was my biggest problem with It’s Only the End of the World – the characters were unconvincing. While Gaspard Ulliel gives a great lead performance, and Marion Cottilard is as delightfully complex as she always it, the performances are just over-the-top and often ridiculous. Vincent Cassel, who I really do like, is pretty terrible as Antoine – I didn’t believe his performance for a single moment. There isn’t a person on Earth that acts quite as foolish and angrily as Cassel’s character does – and perhaps that is Cassel’s fault, but I’d attribute it to the fact that Dolan just didn’t write the character as anything other than an insulting, angry fool, and he got what he wanted.
Nathalie Baye brings humour to the film, but also often goes too far, and she doesn’t have quite the emotional development I was hoping her character would have – and if this film had steered more towards being about Louis and his mother, rather than being about Louis and Antonie, I think it would’ve been a far more moving film. Once again, I don’t blame the actors too much for this film being messy – I blame Dolan, because he just didn’t develop these characters into anything other than one-dimensional stereotypes. It comes as quite a shock, because two other films I watched recently – Manchester by the Sea and Captain Fantastic, are far superior in developing characters within a family-crisis scenario.
It is very easy to blame the messiness of It’s Only the End of the World on the script, mainly because each of the five actors in this film have proven their talents in the past, and you can see they are trying their absolute best to overcome a script that is riddled with problems. Of course, the cast was a major selling point of It’s Only the End of the World in my eyes – Marion Cotillard is one of the greatest actresses working today, and Dolan has proven himself to bring out the best in his actors in the past – so its only logical that I would be excited to see them working together. She does deliver, and she gives one of her most quiet and complex performances – its almost a performance I wish had been in a better film, because if there is one thing I took away from It’s Only the End of the World, it is that Cotillard gave a great performance.
Gaspard Ulliel also commits, but he serves as a reactionary figure, simply being there for the other characters to have their moments. He is more of a plot device rather than a character, and while he obviously cannot be written out of the film, despite being the lead of the film, and the story centering around him, he was the least important character in the film – and if It’s Only the End of the World had been slightly more controlled and carefully made, this could’ve been quite an interesting experience. Unfortunately, it just came off as laziness and failure to develop Louis into anything other than a boring character, despite that fact that Ulliel gives the role his all.
As mentioned before, Vincent Cassel goes way too far, and it borders on pantomime. A far more restrained and focused performance would have been much better. Nathalie Baye is lovely, and she made me laugh several times – but she also came across as being far too cartoonish (in part due to the immense amount of makeup she wears in this film – I understand the reasoning, but when your character is supposed to look like a woman holding onto her youth, but rather looks like a clown caught in a rainstorm, you need to dial it back a few notches). Léa Seydoux is going to rise to become a big star, and while her performance as Suzanne was very interesting, she didn’t manage to do much here. I would’ve loved to see where the story would have gone if more focus was on Suzanne.
The problem with It’s Only the End of the World is that for the first hour, it is a tense and often very funny dark comedy about family, with the potential to lead to a thrilling and complex climax – and instead of doing that, it loses its way and becomes convoluted and nonsensical. The characters just explode into a frenzy, and nothing gets resolved. You’re left unsatisfied and confused, and just bored. It’s Only the End of the World didn’t know where it wanted to go, or what it wanted to be, and I know it is trendy (especially in theatre, which is important to note, as It’s Only the End of the World did start as a play) to leave endings open and not resolve the conflict and leave the audience with more questions than answers – but It’s Only the End of the World just leaves the audience bored and tired. Dolan clearly rushed this film out, and a clearer focus and a direction of where he wanted this film to go would have been far superior to the dull film we received.
It’s Only the End of the World is not a great film, and Dolan has made many better films. However, it is a film that I actually quite liked, because it had its charms, and it was great to see these talented performers acting across from each other. It is wonderful to see Dolan grow as a filmmaker, and I feel like he’s going to make many more masterpieces that will give him atonement for It’s Only the End of the World. There are worse films to make, and even if it is a bit of a disaster like It’s Only the End of the World, it is still a memorable disaster. I can’t wait to see the next complex film Dolan makes, hopefully it is better than It’s Only the End of the World.