Intimate drama doesn't sync with showy director's style

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play It’s Only the End of the World was based upon his own experience of living with AIDS. It depicts a writer (‘Louis’)’s reluctant return home to his family after 12 years of aloof estrangement, with a plan to break the news of his impending death. Lagarce’s work is acclaimed for its skilfully musical language, which dances around robust confrontations and things that are left unsaid.

This kind of stuff is catnip for Xavier Dolan, the prolific chronicler of queer stories of family dysfunction. The writer/director of I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways, Tom at the Farm and Mommy brings a ready-made theatricality to dramas that focus on the chasm between family members – especially mothers who don’t ‘get’ their gay sons. It’s easy to see why he leapt at the opportunity to adapt Lagarce’s play for the screen, and stacked it with a dream cast of French superstars – Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Léa Seydoux – to inhabit the roles of the forgotten family.

With a solid source text and trusted players, all of the elements are there for It’s Only the End of the World to build upon the goodwill for Mommy and mark Dolan’s triumphant ‘up yours’ to the contingent of critics who prickle at the excesses of his filmmaking, and sneer at his lack of life experience (he’s 27). However, I’m sorry to report that this won't be the film that sways them.

Perhaps the worst of Dolan’s sins is that he’s managed to elicit a bad performance from the usually solid Marion Cotillard. 

Not having read the source play, nor seen it performed, I can’t speak to the specific problems with its adaptation, but Dolan’s script doesn’t have any hint of the kind of lyricism or subtlety that is frequently cited in feedback about Lagarce’s play. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that this is Dolan’s sixth feature, against the one-dimensional archetypes, unearned emotion and film language clichés that run through It’s Only the End of the World.  

It’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between this film and Tom Ford’s A Single Man, which also explores a gay man’s final days, and loads ordinary exchanges with meaning and unspoken profundity. But Dolan’s mangled adaptation isn’t in the same league as Ford’s thoughtful appropriation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel.

Perhaps the worst of Dolan’s sins is that he’s managed to elicit a bad performance from the usually solid Marion Cotillard. She’s awfully unconvincing as timid ‘wife-slash-mother’ Catherine, who is incapable of stringing a coherent sentence together unless it’s about her children. Having met and married Louis’ older brother Antoine (Cassel) in the period of Louis’ absence, Catherine is the film’s obligatory outsider who overdoes her attempts to fill the awkward silences with sputtering small talk. Her conversations take U-turns mid-sentence before she abandons them altogether (at the urging of her unsupportive husband), to quizzical/sympathetic looks from her curious brother-in-law.

Dolan sets it up to suggest that Antoine’s cruel put-downs might be responsible for Catherine’s terrible communication skills but honestly, Cotillard doesn’t play it that way. Her one-note performance is jarringly absent of any kind of nervous energy that might explain her character’s compulsion to keep attempting to speak and to be heard, so she comes across as someone who's more distracted than she is downtrodden, who also possesses the sentence construction skills of Sarah Palin.

(I’ll be forgiving and note that his was one of five movies Cotillard made back-to-back last year – a decision she admitted in an interview with me here in Cannes that she’ll never repeat: “Every day I was someone different which is an experience I’m glad to have had but I will never experience again. It was too much but I did it. Why? I don’t know yet.”).  

Gaspard Ulliel is a largely silent observer of the overwrought action as prodigal son Louis. André Turpin’s camera searches the recesses of his handsome face as Louis considers when to drop his bombshell disclosure, and recalls flashbacks to happier times sneaking boys and bongs into his bedroom, and singing Romanian Europop anthem ‘Numa Numa’ with Antoine. Nathalie Baye (Laurence Anyways) is kitted out like Rossy De Palma in a black bob, power suit and electric eye shadow as the overbearing mama with an obvious discomfort with her son’s sexuality. She talks around her suspicion about the reason for Louis’ return, and, like Léa Seydoux as tattooed pothead (!) and little sister Suzanne, she’s constrained by the limitations of a thin character.

Thank god for Vincent Cassel, whose pissed off Antoine is the only one who feels remotely like a living human being with a backstory. Of course he too is a literary construct: the brazen truth teller of the piece, who cuts through the incessant small talk to pick at old scabs. At least he puts some life into the film, though, as he calls out on the forced pleasantries of the weird reunion.

The scenes that address the film’s question of whether Louis will disclose news of his death to people who no longer play a part in his life, underscore the weakness of Dolan’s direction. They’re a rushed display of actorly histrionics (and inconsistent light sources) that reveal a lack of intimacy with its lead character that would rival anything it levels at his fractured family.  

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