IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD
(2016, Xavier Dolan)
[Sydney Film Festival 2016]
Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) comes home to his family to tell them that he is dying. His absence has been too long and there are unresolved issues in this family they are forced to address now that he has returned. Most of the film is set inside the family house with the family members photographed in claustrophobic closeups. The interior of the house is dark, even in daytime. The curtains are heavy and let through just enough light but it doesn’t seem to disperse around the room, enveloping the subjects inside with a blanket of gloom. The family talk at the dinner table, they talk in the car, they talk inside the dark rooms of the house. But it feels like no one is really saying anything.
There are two exquisite scenes in this movie and they are found at the very beginning and the very end. Everything else in between is filler. It is not a long film - about an hour and a half - but it feels exhausting to sit through because it’s made up of long scenes of empty dialogue that are neither revealing or interesting. Every single character manages to be both frustratingly unfathomable and stereotypical. They refer to things we are never shown and there is so much references to the past but the audience is rarely clued-in to this mysterious history. It needed to be more explicit.
I don’t need everything to be laid out but I do need something. Vagueness is good when there is a purpose to it. Vagueness for the purpose of perplexing audiences can be good. Vagueness for the purpose of mood and atmosphere is also good. But vagueness for the sake of vagueness means the film usually has nothing else to offer. Like its characters, it doesn’t know what to say and how to say it. It was like sitting through a dinner party full of awkward and inarticulate people. I wanted to connect to this family but something was in the way. One could argue that is the whole point of this movie but it only presents itself as such and never evolves from that resulting in a film that, as a whole, is unsatisfying.
There is tension in the air but it’s not brought about by character, dialogue or story. It’s manufactured by style and technique, which I can say is quite good. There are flourishes and touches I’ve come to know and expect from Dolan. The aforementioned opening and ending scenes are imbued with cinematic magic, achieved simply and poetically. The first shows the protagonist inside an airplane cabin drenched with blue light that it almost looks underwater. A strange sensation of simultaneous serenity and panic. There’s a voiceover that puts us inside the mind of this tormented, dying character and culminates to an image of a child covering his eyes. This is an evocative image showing an adult longing for the blithe of the young. The ending, which I will not spoil, involves a bird. Both scenes are still vague but it’s the kind of vagueness that fascinates the viewer rather than push them away. For the most part unfortunately, I felt pushed away.
In his previous film MOMMY, Dolan proves that he can manoeuvre the complex relationships between three broken people and how their flaws bring up and then erode one another. Here, none of that interpersonal fireworks occur. The script is so badly written, but I suspect it might be something to do with the translation as I know many French speakers are fierce defenders of the film. Something clearly got lost in translation because I found the writing obvious and hysterical with a one-note sense of angst that drags the mood of the film to excruciating dullness.
I really think Dolan is one of the few working directors willing to push narrative boundaries through stylistic and formal experimentations but he pushes it a little too far here, or maybe not enough - it’s really hard to tell. The central character played by Gaspard Ulliel is so enigmatic as to render him completely opaque. There are allusions to his past from flashbacks that reveal small details about his character but these are far too few and far too unclear. It’s like a pilot to a really good TV show - you get introduced to the characters and everything is purposefully vague because it is expected that the characters will be fleshed out, their relationships examined and the complexity of the story unfold in later episodes. But you don’t get more episodes here. This is it. Only this.