Monday, September 26, 2016

Movie Review: It's Only the End of the World

It’s Only the End of the World
Directed by: Xavier Dolan    
Written by: Xavier Dolan based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce.
Starring: Nathalie Baye (La mere), Vincent Cassel (Antoine Knipper), Marion Cotillard (Catherine), Léa Seydoux (Suzanne Knipper), Gaspard Ulliel (Louis-Jean Knipper). 

When directors talk about adapting plays for film, they often talk about “opening” the play up. Many plays have a limited number of characters and only one locations – which makes sense given the constraints of the theater. There is no such constraint on film – so often plays add characters and locations, subplots, etc. when they move to film, in an effort to make things more cinematic – no director wants to accused of making a movie that is essentially a photographed play – and even if this opening up often has mixed results, it’s still pretty much the preferred method. Xavier Dolan does a little of this in It’s Only the End of the World – based on the play by Jean-Luc Lagarce. He has a flashback scene that would impossible on stage, and at one point, two of his characters go on a car ride instead of staying at the house nearly all the rest of the action takes place in (I assume, not having seen the play, that the scene was at the house on stage) – although in doing so, he’s just trading one confined space for another. For the most part though, Dolan traps his five actors in one location – and then goes a step further than that because he shoots almost the entire movie in close-up – whoever is talking has a camera directly in their face, unless the camera is directly in the face of the person they are talking to. Instead of opening up the play, he’s closed it down even more – made it more claustrophobic than ever before. Perhaps with another play, this approach could work – but here, it’s pretty much a disaster. There is a lot of screaming and big gestures in the film, and the effect of watching it in a theater is pretty much akin to having someone get into your personal space and screaming at you for 97 minutes.

The movie is about Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a gay writer you is returning to his home for the first time in 12 years to tell his mother (Nathalie Baye), older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) and younger sister, Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) that he is dying. The only other character there is Antoine’s wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard) – who Louis has never met, even though she and Antoine have been together for a decade, and have two kids themselves. The exact reasons for Louis’ self-isolation – and the whereabouts of their father – is left unanswered (although, I will admit, I spent more time trying to figure out how old the three siblings were supposed to be than that – Cassell is 49 in real life, and both Ulliel and Seydoux are 31 – although Ulliel says he’s 35 in the film, and Seydoux is supposed to be much younger, as he mentions he doesn’t know her at all as he left when she was a kid – and she admits she has no memory of him living with them – but I digress). Louis’ mother is excited for the visit – she’s slathering on makeup, and putting out a nice spread of all of Louis’ childhood favorites. Suzanne cannot wait to essentially meet her older brother – who she imagines lives some glamorous life, as opposed to her boring one in suburbia, where she basically sits around and gets stoned. Antoine is angry – angry at Louis, and at his life in general. Catherine tries to play the role of peacekeeper – keeping a smile plastered on her face throughout, and speaking quietly. Like many quiet people, you get the impression that not a lot gets by her – she understands more than she appears to.
The movie is essentially made up of a series of one-on-one conversations between Louis and the other members of the family – although there are two meals at both the beginning and end of the film where everyone is together. Yet even these one-on-one conversations are barely that – they’re much more like multiple scenes where the members of the family tell Louis everything about their life – and those of their family – and what they all need Louis to do for them. It couldn’t be stagier if it tried.
Perhaps on stage, all this works. Louis pretty much remains a cipher throughout the film – you never really get a handle on who he is, why he left, his place in the family, etc. It seems like he has become a bigger presence in the family in his absence then he was when he was there – especially for his mother and sister, who think he can solve everything. In many ways, Antoine is the character whose motivations are the clearest and easiest to understand – he’s pissed. He’s pissed that his brother left, he’s pissed that he got famous, pissed that he has to take care of everything himself, pissed he has a shitty job, etc. His anger makes sense. Yet, his scenes are also the worst in the film – as Cassell essentially decides to scream every word of dialogue he has – and seethe in quiet anger when he isn’t talking.
In fact, out of all the performances in the film, only Cotillard is really convincing. One of the best actresses in the world, she turns Catherine into a sympathetic character – her big eyes take everything in, and unlike everyone else, she doesn’t really have any delusions about Louis – she tries to be nice, make small talk, tell him about her kids, etc., early on – but a later scene, in the hallway, lets us know precisely what she really does think – and her quiet, not quite criticism, cuts closer to the bone than anything else. Ulliel is stuck with an impossible role – he looks sad eyed throughout, and never gets to say what he really think. Baye is all exaggerated emotions and gestures – it’s hard to take her seriously in her one scene when she does get serious – harder still to believe a woman of that age would have such a juvenile outlook on life. Seydoux is clearly too old to be playing what is essentially a spoiled. naive teenage brat – and the film gives her no other note to play.
Dolan is a talented filmmaker. He is no longer the teenage wunderkind who dazzled with I Killed My Mother back in 2009, even if I’m not quite sure his outlook on life has matured that much in the intervening years. Still, that film – along with Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways and Mommy all show him to be a talented filmmaker – and even if I didn’t particularly love Tom at the Farm, I liked how it showed a willingness to experiment and try a different genre. I still think Dolan is one of the most interesting cinematic voices to come out of Canada in years – and look forward to whatever he does next. But It’s Only the End of the World is pretty much awful from beginning to end – shrill, loud, angry, lacking in any real insight or emotion, it’s a trying experience to sit through. Every director has some misfires in their career – It’s Only the End of the World is one of those for Dolan.

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