The word gets bandied around a lot, but genuine cinematic “auteurs” are a rare breed. It’s easy to understand the excitement that Xavier Dolan inspires, even before you’ve watched any of his gloriously overheated films. The Quebecois director — who also writes, edits and sometimes stars in his movies, as well as designs costumes — has had five premieres at Cannes, and he’s still only 27.
Yet it seems like the honeymoon may be over. Last September, Dolan posted a message on Instagram, announcing that he wouldn’t be taking his next picture to Cannes. While reiterating his love for the festival, he took issue with the “culture of trolling, bullying and unwarranted hatred” that had infected the way movies were received there.
You can forgive him for feeling a little sore. Having won the third-place Jury Prize for “Mommy” at Cannes in 2014 — and sharing the award with Jean-Luc Godard, no less — Dolan returned last year to see his hotly awaited follow-up, “It’s Only the End of the World,” subjected to a brutal critical bloodletting.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||99 mins|
|Language||FRENCH (JAPANESE SUBTITLES)|
Hollywood Reporter called it “cold and deeply unsatisfying.” The Wrap labeled it a “total misfire.” Little White Lies writer David Jenkins simply tweeted a picture of the Hindenburg going down in flames. Never mind that the film went on to win the Grand Prix, the festival’s second-highest accolade: The damage had been done.
Dolan was probably right to complain, but the critics also kind of had a point. “It’s Only the End of the World” represents a maturation of his craft, but it’s also a deeply flawed movie, in which bold stylistic techniques sometimes risk smothering the story. Adapting a play by the late Jean-Luc Lagarce, Dolan depicts a fraught family reunion as a glossy fever dream, but never quite hits the emotional intensity of “Mommy” or 2013’s “Tom at the Farm.”
Gaspard Ulliel plays Louis, a terminally ill playwright who heads back to his family home after a 12-year absence with the intention of announcing his imminent demise. His relatives don’t seem particularly interested in listening, though. Older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is openly resentful of the prodigal son’s return, while the family’s highly strung matriarch (Nathalie Baye) is too consumed by her own emotional dramas to have time for anyone else’s.
There’s also Louis’ younger sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux), eager to reconnect (and maybe share a few joints) with her long-lost sibling, and Antoine’s wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard), who makes fumbling attempts to befriend the brother-in-law she’s never met. Any talking about dying, apparently, will have to wait.
Most of the action is confined to the family home, and cinematographer Andre Turpin heightens the claustrophobia by framing the actors in dreamy, shallow-focus shots that are always a few centimeters too close for comfort. Dolan’s screenplay preserves the brittle rhythms of Lagarce’s dialogue, though he rather spoils the effect by overlaying it with Gabriel Yared’s syrupy score. (Rarely has a soundtrack been used most effectively when it’s switched off.)
There’s an awful lot of bluster in “It’s Only the End of the World,” but then that’s what Dolan usually does best. Like Sion Sono in his prime, he goes over the top to get somewhere more interesting, and his transgressions against art-house tastefulness — which this time include giving a prominent role to O-Zone’s cheesy Eurodance anthem “Dragostea Din Tei” — can produce a powerful catharsis.
Yet he’s honestly used these techniques better elsewhere. For all the histrionics in “It’s Only the End of the World,” the characters simply aren’t all that interesting, and the film’s emotional payoff proves decidedly slight. The most affecting bit comes right at the end, when the bickering is finally done, and a quiet moment of magic occurs. It’s unexpected and quite beautiful. If only there was a little more of that here.