From the opening moments of a loud, ticking cuckoo clock, to the potent images of our protagonist’s memories that flood the screen, Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World (2016) is a film all about time: how much we have left, looking back on happier moments and what to do when it has run out for us.
That is the horrific situation faced by Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a successful writer who is travelling home to break the news to his family that he is dying. Faced with his own inevitable mortality and surrounded by people he hasn’t seen for 12 years, Louis finds old memories suddenly resurfacing, the writer reliving happier times with his family and others in his soon-to-be-cut-short life. Weaving both the past and the present together, often simply through the use of stunning, dreamlike imagery, writer-director Dolan creates beautiful and hypnotic sequences that draw us into both these timelines and Louis’s tragic story, those rosy images of a past long forgotten adding to the heartbreaking inevitability he faces.
Indeed Louis’s past certainly seems a lot happier than his present, his visit soon bringing up bickering and reopening old wounds, particularly between him and his older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel). While these squabbles obviously lead to some emotionally devastating moments, especially as his family don’t yet know why he is there, It’s Only the End of the World’s power actually lies in Dolan’s unexpected use of humour throughout. The writer-director (as well as Jean-Luc Lagarce who wrote the play on which this is based) finds the funny in the banal, particularly the dull conversations that the family have to pass the time, whether they be about the choice of baby names, celebrity gossip (or lack thereof), or a new workout routine – a scene made all the more hilarious by Nathalie Baye’s brilliant performance as Louis’s larger-than-life mother. This use of comedy not only keeps us watching and adds a striking realism to proceedings, it also makes it all the more impactful when those emotional moments do suddenly emerge.
It is credit to Dolan that he has assembled such a brilliant cast to make these tonal shifts from light to dark work so well in his story too, their realistic portrayals adding multiple layers to what could have been two-dimensional characters. Vincent Cassel’s Antoine – an explosive character who argues at every turn – could have been simply that, yet Cassel’s superb performance often shows a glimpse of pathos that this abrasive man seems to be trying to hide. Léa Seydoux is similarly great as the younger sister who has grown up without Louis, quiet and brash at the same time, and eager to get to know her absent brother as a way of expanding on her own tired life. However it is both Gaspard Ulliel in the lead role and Marion Cotillard who truly impress here, both with subtle, restrained performances that hint at a wealth of things left unsaid. Cotillard in particular as Antoine’s put-upon wife is able to say more with a simple glimmer in her eyes or her facial expressions than words ever could, a superbly realised performance that makes the quiet moments between her and Louis some of the best in the whole film.
Dolan’s film contains a simple premise, but as with all his other works his compelling direction and cinematography make it as effective as ever, with a beautifully written narrative building to a tragic and unexpected ending that wallops you without you even realising it.
A powerful film that is beautifully shot, with a deftly written and performed script that finds the humour in the tragic.