I have a ton of respect and admiration for Xavier Dolan. It’s hard not to, right? He’s 27. Every profile or review of his work mentions his age. He’s had movie after movie at Cannes, so much acclaim, directed Adele’s Hello video, has an LV campaign and is working on an English-language debut with Jessica Chastain in the lead role. They went to the MET Gala together in May, before they started production… which has been halted until March. They’ve split it in half… and for a reason.
He says he needs a break, and he deserves one.
In an interview with etalk’s Devon Soltendieck, he talks about how working on back-to-back projects has led to the work suffering. It’s an honest admission from Xavier, whose reflective candour and confidence is often (mis?)interpreted as arrogance by the press.
It’s possible that It’s Only the End of the World is one of those back-to-back projects. Hot off the success of Mommy, in 2015, Xavier served on the Cannes jury. As soon as he finished “jury duty,” he went back home to Montreal to shoot It’s Only …, which can best be described as a claustrophobic family drama, as adapted from a play. He was back at Cannes the following year… with the film. That’s a very tight turnaround. He also shot Adele’s Hello during that time period.
Xavier loves the play. He feels it. He breathes it. When the movie was panned at Cannes, and received a polarizing reception from critics, he appeared to lash out at how they did not understand his vision or love for the play. Then, the film won the Grand Jury Prize, one notch above the third place prize Mommy won back in 2014.
The thing is, the movie is hard to like. But, that’s the point. The whole thing takes place more or less in one house, as a family prepares for their estranged son (Gaspard Ulliel) to return home to visit. Louis’ older brother Antoine isn’t having it, but the mother (Nathalie Baye) is just thrilled to see her son after an over 10 year absence. She spends a lot of time getting ready, and drying her nails with a hair dryer. His younger sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux), is also desperate to reconnect, but their reunion proves that Louis is but an empty shell with a secret he does not want to share.
His mother suspects that something’s up, because the midday visit just feels too random. Antoine can’t let indiscretions from the past go, and while Louis and Suzanne try to be nostalgic, they still cannot connect. Marion Cotillard plays Antoine’s wife, who only wants to bore Louis with trivial details about her and Antoine’s family life, as opposed to listen or engage with him. Basically, aside from her superficial niceties and his mother’s broken heart, the majority of the movie involves the family yelling and shouting at each other. It’s a lot of tension, and a lot to process – it’s cringeworthy, really, even though it’s intentional.
But how much cringe can you really handle? Xavier is so faithful to the source material (though the second half differs), and while the play and story is obviously handled with care, it’s suffocating, as opposed to endearingly claustrophobic.
So this is not his best work. Yet, I can’t blame Xavier. He will always have his point of view. The colours in the film are so vivid, and Xavier is obviously a product of the Instagram generation. If anything, while the movie does not have the magic of his other films, it is still worthy and the commitment Xavier is able to get from his actors is admirable, as always. And it may be a great taste of what’s to come from The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.