AFFFF review: It’s Only the End of the World

Devastating in its rare and complex beauty, Dolan delivers his finest family melodrama yet. An emotional whirlwind.

Surrounded by the chaos of his smothering and emotionally needy family, Gaspard Ulliel is a beacon of calm as Louis, the prodigal playwright son returned after a mysterious 12-year absence in order to deliver news of his terminal illness in French-Canadian writer/director Xavier Dolan’s heart-breaking masterpiece It’s Only The End of the World (Juste la Fin du Monde).

A quiet soul whose innermost thoughts, like the unspoken illness that ails him, are shrouded from the world, André Turpin’s camera lingers on his intoxicatingly diaphanous blue eyes as an unseen, impish child seated behind him on a ghostly grey plane places his tiny hands over them, concealing his truth further still. It’s the first of many sublime moments.

The child’s mischievous attentions are nothing compared to the onslaught of his awaiting clan, with Nathalie Baye’s dramatically red-garbed matriarch blasting her turquoise nail polish with a hair dryer as he steps foot in the home he’s been absent from for so long he hardly recognises younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux). Big brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is openly antagonistic, to the point of mania, violently shouting down Marion Cotillard as his sparrow-like shy wife Catherine, channelling some of her downtrodden physicality from Two Days, One Night, too tired to cover over the cracks.

As they talk over and fight with one another, Dolan whirls the maelstrom by keeping the camera held tight in uncomfortable close ups as one-by-one they each commandeer a moment or two with Louis, laying bare the pent-up hurt of more than a decade.

In case you’ve been off-planet, prolific wunderkind Dolan, used to being lauded, has taken many a brickbat over this latest fraught family melodrama, which was booed en masse at the Cannes Film Festival and has raised the ire, or disinterest, of many a critic. All I can say is that from Seydoux’ heartfelt and dope-smogged monologue, begging for some kind of explanation as to why he left her their isolated with her dark drawings, pained eyes searching for any sliver of regret at the time they lost buried deep in his, I was devastated.

A haunting chamber piece constructed of a series of quiet calms broken by raging squalls, Dolan adapted the screenplay from the stageshow of the same name by award-winning late French dramatist Jean-Luc Lagarce. The latter wrote it in part addressing his own experience with HIV/AIDS, but it’s the aching expectation and tension of a truth held tight that charges this almost unbearably sad work.

Through the fury in Antoine’s eyes, the desperation fogging Suzanne’s and the bright spark of an all-forgiving love in his mothers, even as she begs him to make things right, we see that Louis, in leaving, has caused this cataclysmic collapse. Though we are not privy as to why he fled, and there is surely pain here, we can see he acknowledges some of the blame.

Amidst the hubbub, so much of Dolan’s nerve-shattering movie is told in pregnant silence, with a beautiful exchange between Louis and Catherine, swapping from one over-the-shoulder shot to the other as they both glance deep into eyes racing through the emotional range, a master class in economically powerful storytelling. The same is true of Baye’s in a hug held just long enough to radiate a mother’s overwhelming need to cling to her absentee son. Even Antoine’s bullying menace hides a chasm of loss.

Gabriel Yared’s score clamours over all, exacerbating the heartache, breaking into pulsing electro as Louis retreats into fragmentary memories of his gay teenage lover. This tender flashback leads to Antoine’s most brutal act, again a violence of words over fists.

Heart racing and breath caught for most of the final act, tears were streaming down my face. A heart-rending work of rare and all-powerful melancholy, there is, nonetheless, a swell of hope, most notably signalled by a cuckoo clock. A grief-bearing stranger brought back into the home can sometimes mend more than they break.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

Book tickets to see It’s Only the End of the World at AFFFF here.

A version of this review first ran during SFF.