Based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Xavier Dolan’s latest feature opens with somewhat ludicrous text informing us that the film is set “Somewhere, a while ago” – Mommy had a similar opening, but it at least made a little more sense there – and the central character, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), travelling home on a plane. He informs us, via voiceover, that he is doing so because he wants to tell his family, who it transpires he hasn’t seen for twelve years, that he is dying.
It’s never quite clear what Louis, who we discover is gay, is dying of, but it’s hard not to shake the idea that this is a film that is stepping into the awful genre of tragic melodramas about dying gay characters, something into which one should probably tread more carefully than Dolan does here.
Louis has little to no defining characteristics – he’s a playwright with dewey eyes – and his family are equally easy to define with a Post-it note of explanation apiece. There’s his “crazy” mother, who shrieks a lot, his sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) – moody, emotional and suffering from arrested development – his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) – a brutish, alpha male bully – and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard) – a timid shrew who stumbles and stutters over every sentence she says.
Cotillard looks, for the most part, like a frightened rabbit for the entirety of the film, and whilst she is a fine actress, this role just makes her look rather silly. All of the assembled performers come out of this endeavour looking pretty bad, but it’s obvious – in part from the fact that they’re universally pretty dreadful – that it’s a systemic problem throughout the film, rather than the fault of one actor or actress.
It’s Only the End of the World is hysterical to the point of being utterly exhausting, with shrill characters shouting implausible dialogue at every turn and the cinematography – the film was shot by Dolan’s Tom at the Farm collaborator, Gabriel Yard – often succumbing to similar histrionics. For a great deal of the film’s running time characters are shot in close-up, individually and in very shallow focus. The point of this is probably clear within the first few minutes of seeing the family interact: the divisions between them and their inability to connect with each other is obvious; but because the majority of the film is shot in this manner it simply becomes, like much of the plotting and dialogue, tiresome.
Early on in the film Louis is talking to Suzanne in her room, and throughout the scene a boom drops in and out of shot. This seemed like a bad omen at the time, and the remainder of the film confirmed that these fears were not unfounded. There are lots of signs in It’s Only the End of the World that a lot of thought was put into the film, but at the same time it really does seem like someone was asleep at the wheel.
It’s Only the End of the World is even more of a disappointment, following on as it does from Xavier Dolan’s electric Mommy, which premiered at Cannes in 2014. It’s a blunt and forgettable film that, for most, will no doubt be significantly underwhelming: even Dolan’s many dedicated fans.