Film review | It’s only the end of the world: The afternoon apocalypse

The movie's rocky promotional start that actually matches the tone and feel of this earnest but flawed film • 3.5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
10 January 2017, 8:31am
Clockwise from left: Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Lea Seydoux and Nathalie Baye make for one hell of a dysfunctional family
Clockwise from left: Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Lea Seydoux and Nathalie Baye make for one hell of a dysfunctional family
The French-Canadian cinematic wunderkind suffered something of a drubbing in this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival, after his latest offering – the oppressive family drama based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, It’s Only the End of the World – was booed during its premiere and received a not-entirely lustrous critical reception. 

Though this reverses his reputation as a prodigy – he’s 27 – who can pretty much do no wrong, and while the movie media hung around with baited breath to catch wind of some bratty backlash from the infamously volatile filmmaker, ‘End of the World’ actually went on to win the Grand Prix at the very same award ceremony. 

It’s a rocky promotional start that actually matches the tone and feel of this earnest but flawed film. 

Deliberately exiled from his family for over a decade, the young playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) decides to come back just in time to announce that he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. But he’d like to break it to them as gently as possible, all the while savouring what passes for quality time with this volatile bunch, consisting of (single) mother Martine (Nathalie Baye), aimless younger sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) and the Antoine (Vincent Cassel), the elder brother with a massive chip on his shoulder and the shortest fuse this side of Christendom. As Louis attempts to break through the barriers of resentment that hang over each conversation, he finds something of a kindred spirit in Catherine (Marion Cotillard) – Antoine’s wife – who appears to understand Louis’s struggle even if she can barely compose a sentence without falling apart into a confused stammer. 

The inability to communicate our emotional trajectories is what’s at the nub of Lagarce’s play – among other things – and it’s something that Dolan adapts with varying degrees of success. The first few minutes of the film appear to justify its initial lukewarm response, as the family’s staggering introductory conversations feel like showy attempts at stylized weirdness rather than genuine displays of the brittleness of intimate discourse. 

Mommy dearest: Baye and Ulliel
Mommy dearest: Baye and Ulliel
Cotillard’s character in particular feels like a bit of a contrived presence, especially when she’s actually required to talk – owing to the fact that she consistently trips on her words in a way that feels too strange to be believable – but like the rest of the film, her character gradually slides into this mad and maddening tapestry in a way that feels convincing. 

Though it still feels hemmed in by the theatrical mode – even if Dolan insists that substantial changes were required to make it all feel more cinematic – the young director’s trademark use of pop songs to enliven a scene is very much present here too. Sometimes it feels ever so slightly misguided – the use of Moby’s far too ubiquitous Natural Blues as a parting shot is particularly jarring – but his way of pausing conversations to let the music bleed into the scene is effective, viscerally illustrating Louis’s wistful mental state or leading to a heart-wrenching flashback. 

Dolan’s fetish for close-ups also contributes to the claustrophobic sense of the material, and those with direct experience of unpleasant family encounters – a fresh wound for some at the tail end of the holiday season – may not find this readiest source of escapist fun. Still, moments of spontaneous humour help to change up the tone: even if it’s just to pull the knife in deeper. 

With Hitchcockian tension hanging over the proceedings as we’re left wondering when – and if – Louis will finally deliver his bombshell of a confession, Dolan wrings out some universal truths from this strained quintet. 

For all its histrionics and sometimes off-key stylistic choices, this is a film that is saved by its ultimate sincerity. We can all recognise parts of ourselves, and of our own families, in the long-overdue gathering whose unfolding we’re invited to witness, and whose faults they can’t run away from now that the resentment bubbles up to head. 

The Cannes audience may have had a point, but I’ve got a feeling the boos had more to do with exorcising the film’s toxic blend of love and hate, over anything else. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...