The characters in “It’s Only the End of the World” talk a lot throughout the film, but their words signify nothing but sound and fury as they go through one miserable day together. Maybe that is its whole point, but the movie is merely sour and frustrating without enough interest to hold our attention, and we only come to watch its superficial characters from the distance while not caring much about them or what is going to happen between them.
The movie opens with the melancholic musing of Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a 34-year-old gay writer who is soon going to reunite with his family he left 12 years ago. As reflected by his words, he is dying due to some unspecified terminal illness, and he wants to break this bad news to his family directly although he has not corresponded with them much during last 12 years.
How he came to leave his family at that time is never explained, but it is apparent from his family’s first appearance that they are a typical case of dysfunctional family. While his mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) is a neurotic and flamboyant woman as reflected by her gaudy attire and hair style, his younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) is your average spunky lass who does not get along well with her mother, and his older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) is a sullen, grumpy guy who is often not so good to his insecure wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard).
When Louis finally arrives at Martine’s house, he is greeted by everyone in the house, but this supposedly happy moment does not last long as his family members constantly generate discord among them, and he gradually finds himself getting isolated as feeling more of the gap between him and his family. When he gets a chance to talk with Suzanne in her room, the mood feels easy and comfortable with her casual pot-smoking, and she rambles about several things in front of him, but nothing much is revealed or changed between them in the end. Martine is also willing to have a private conversation with her prodigal son, but that does not help him or her much as their talk goes nowhere, and he remains indecisive about when he should reveal his illness to her and other family members.
He does not get much help from his older brother either. While resenting Louis for some personal reason, Antoine is not very nice to other family members either, and, not so surprisingly, he causes a very awkward moment during the family lunch. When Louis later tries to talk with his brother, that turns out to be a pretty unwise choice, and we accordingly get one of the shrillest scenes in the film.
In case of Katherine, she remains passive and unsure as browbeaten by her husband at times, but there is a small moment which suggests that she guesses why Louis suddenly comes to see his family. When she and Louis look at each other briefly during one early scene, something seems to dawn upon her, but she never brings it out, and neither does he.
All these elements could be mixed together into a compelling family drama, but the movie only keeps spinning its wheels while never fully developing its characters into real ones to engage us. As they are constantly vague and elusive in their relentless series of talks, they eventually become bland talking devices, and it does not help much that most of them are not that likable on the whole.
To make matters worse, the director Xavier Dolan, who also edited the film besides adapting Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play “Juste la fin du monde” for the film, and his cinematographer André Turpin use close-up as frequently as, say, “Les Misérables” (2012). Rather than bringing any emotional intensity to the screen, this misguided visual approach only makes the movie look stuffy and constrained, and we become more aware of the heavy-handed aspects of the film as the circumstance becomes more unpleasant for everyone around its final act.
The performers in the movie try as much as they can, but I cannot help but think of their respective better moments. I later realized that Nathalie Baye appeared in “The Return of Martin Guerre” (1982), and then I came to recall how she was as good as her co-star Gérard Depardieu in that movie. Gaspard Ulliel previously appeared in “A Very Long Engagement” (2004), and some of you probably know that Marion Cotillard appeared as a crucial supporting character in that wonderful film. Besides her terrific performance in “Blue is the Warmtest Color” (2013), Léa Seydoux has delighted us with several other interesting performances during recent years since we noticed her in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011), and Vincent Cassel certainly utilized his distinctive caddish persona more effectively in other films including “Black Swan” (2010) and “A Dangerous Method” (2011).
Above all, Dolan made films more interesting than this tepid piece of work. I enjoyed the colorfully stylish scenes in “Laurence Anyways” (2012), I was amused by the odd, tense moments in “Tom at the Farm” (2013), and I appreciated the raw energy of “Mommy” (2014). Compared to these three striking films, “It’s Only the End of the World” is curiously subdued and lifeless, and but it somehow received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in last year (it also received the Ecumenical Jury prize at the festival and then was chosen as Canada’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2017 Academy Awards, by the way).
Anyway, I had one valuable experience with the movie at least. When I watched the movie during last Sunday afternoon, I thought the movie was terrible, but I came to have second thoughts because I was not in a very good condition. I came to watch the movie again during this Tuesday evening, and I am happy to report that I could watch it with less sleepy eyes, but I still do not like it although it is not as awful as it looked at first. I guess my gut feeling worked well despite my bad condition during that time.