Jean-Luc Lagarce was 38 when he died of AIDS, four years older than Louis, the protagonist of his play “It’s Only the End of the World.” Though he never comes right out and names the disease, Louis is going home to tell his family that he is dying. What he doesn’t realize is that they don’t want to hear it, or maybe they already know. After disappearing for 12 long years, Louis may as well already be dead to his family, and how does someone in that position tell his mother that he’s going to die?
Adapted for the screen by Canadian director Xavier Dolan, Lagarce’s play permits the ambitious young helmer (whose burning desire to win Cannes’ coveted Palme d’Or was merely stoked by the jury prize he shared with Jean-Luc Godard in 2014) to assemble a dream cast of great French actors: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel. Shooting them almost exclusively in claustrophobically tight closeup, Dolan has tried — not unsuccessfully, mind you, though in the most taxing way imaginable — to break free from the theatricality of the source material, while preserving the tricky language of Lagarce’s text (spoken in actual French, rather than his usual Canadian accents).
The result is a frequently excruciating dramatic experience in which characters seem almost never to stop talking, and when they do, the exasperated Louis can’t bring himself to confess what he’s come there to say. It doesn’t help that the script’s strengths are almost entirely lost in a too-literal translation that strains to approximate the conversational nuances of the play. For example, a miscast Cotillard’s overly polite dance between the familiar “tu” and formal “vous” simply doesn’t have an English equivalent, and no amount of empty staring can convey the full meaning of her double-edged question, “How much time?”
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Still, failure to communicate is the point here, and though there’s an entire contingent of critics who love to hate Dolan, the director is right to describe the project as “my first as a man” (as he does in the Cannes press notes). There is a welcome maturity to “It’s Only the End of the World” that was absent in his five previous features — and also a rare restraint.
Dolan’s earlier work is defined by its impulsive combustibility, which was the very subject of his barely-seen debut, “I Killed My Mother.” His characters have a way of flying off the handle, of losing their temper and saying everything that’s on their minds, accompanied by dynamic camera moves and jacked-up musical choices. While people still get angry in “It’s Only the End of the World,” with the exception of Louis’ hot-head brother Antoine (Cassel), most of what they’re really trying to say is spoken in subtext. This is Dolan’s attempt to do what came so naturally to Tom Ford on “A Single Man,” forgoing over-stimulated pastiche in the attempt to craft a film with a single, unified artistic vision.
For many a gay man, seemingly the hardest thing he can possibly share with his immediate family is the infamous “coming out” conversation. For far too many of those newly liberated men, however, that challenge has been eclipsed by a far heavier burden, as they struggle to find a way to open up about their HIV-positive status to the same loved ones — brothers, sisters and parents who often struggled to suspend their judgment, only to confront a diagnosis that is often cruelly interpreted as punishment for the wrong lifestyle choice.
In Louis’ case, he’s been away from home for more than a decade, maintaining only the most superficial communication: postcards sent for birthdays and holidays, with seemingly less time spent on their terse hand-written messages than in choosing the eclectic images on front. It’s an antiquated form of contact (especially in the current internet age, although a pre-film chyron specifies that it takes place “a while ago already,” which presumably explains the lack of e-mail or smartphones), but one that comfortably allows Louis to maintain a one-way dynamic with his family members. And once we meet them, who can blame him — although the film relies far too heavily on us to fill in the history of their dysfunction.
Baye plays Louis’ mother, a frightening gargoyle of a woman who paints her eyelids and fingernails the same cobalt blue as her necklace. Though Louis’ sister Suzanne (“Blue Is the Warmest Color” star Seydoux) and sister-in-law Catherine (Cotillard) stand anxiously awaiting his arrival in the foyer of his childhood home, they seem at a loss of what to say when he actually gets there. His older brother by at least 15 years, Antoine simmers with his back to Louis, leaving his wife to fill the air with awkward small talk about their children. On first viewing, it’s hard to read the actual dynamics of this early reunion scene, though in retrospect, we can assume that Catherine and Antoine have already figured out what Louis has come to say (a clue involving an old boyfriend’s “cancer” suggests that they’re aware of the risk, at least), and they may be trying to protect their mother from the news.
But it’s agonizing to know Louis’ agenda, which he reveals via voiceover in the opening scene, only to be forced to scan reams of subtitles in which everyone knows he has something important to say, but seems determined to prevent him from spilling the news. His mom finds things to busy herself in the kitchen; Catherine offers updates about nephews in whom the selfish Louis never showed much interest; and Suzanne takes comfort in a joint. All the while, d.p. André Turpin’s camera presses in far too close to the characters, crowding their faces with an intimacy that proves unflattering even to beauties as stunning as Cotillard and Seydoux — models for Dior and Louis Vuitton, respectively, made to look like painted harlequins under the film’s harsh lighting and oppressive proximity (yet one more veneer in a film that amps up the music, makeup, costume and set choices to disguise its stagnant staginess).
Ulliel, who starred in Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” subsumes his natural sex appeal to play Louis as meek as possible, and as such, he earns our sympathies (he’s dying, after all!). But as the play unfolds, the visit home starts to increasingly feel like a selfish act, while Antoine — whom Cassel plays to maximum unbearability — proves to be the only one capable of saying what’s really on his mind. It all explodes in a powerful climactic confrontation that, for all its pyrotechnic energy, manages to keep firmly, elegantly within the aesthetic parameters Dolan has set for the film, the camera never taking its distance as the lighting turns a fiery orange. Here, in cinema’s most unpleasant genre (the dysfunctional family gathering), Dolan has found a way to exasperate and exhaust his audience, but he has also achieved a completely unexpected catharsis at the end of an agonizing hour and a half. Standing there on the grave of dreams, he knows why the caged bird sings.