Xavier Dolan’s films are either about the families we take refuge in or the ones we take refuge from. But It’s Only the End of the World might be the first that’s about both. Based on a play by the late Jean-Luc Lagarce, this fever-pitch melodrama stars Gaspard Ulliel as Louis, a gay writer suffering through an unnamed illness, who returns to his family home after a 12-year absence to try and break the news of his impending death to his mother (Nathalie Baye) and siblings (Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, and Marion Cotillard).
It’s Only the End of the World proceeds through 95 minutes of faces, in tight close-up, all spouting endless dialogue, but, poignantly, rarely saying anything of real importance; one fascinating dynamic of Dolan’s latest is how the filmmaker adapts a talky play into something that could feasibly have the same emotional effect as a silent film. The idea here is that this family would rather fill the air with meaningless babble about the interim years of Louis’s absence than address anything so traumatizing as the news that at least some of them seem to know he’s come back to tell.
Dolan has called this film his “first as a man,” and while there’s a certain mature uniformity to the grammar at play here, that characterization discounts the role that youth’s excess has played in all his films to date, and for better and worse in It’s Only the End of the World. Louis’s visit is loaded with not only the tragic tension of the secret he’s resolved to share, but also the lingering resentments that caused him to be away from his family for so long. Dolan allows for his cast to draw on these feelings and use them to shape their manic, often grating performances. Visually, the cumulative effect is that of characters under the great scrutiny of an unforgiving camera. The close-ups and dramatic lighting that he and his cinematographer, André Turpin, employ not only place intended focus on facial expressions, but on the physical state of faces: sweat and clumping make-up expose the extreme duress that Louis’s visit causes his family, while the largely unfazed features of Louis’s own face expose the selfishness of his act.
All of this feels like a natural extension of the kinds of outsized, alternately repressed and uncontainable emotions that Dolan’s films have explored already. In his best film to date, Laurence Anyways, indefatigable idealism was weaponized as a force against intolerance; and his 2014 Cannes winner Mommy movingly advanced the largely immature worldview of the filmmaker’s debut, I Killed My Mother, by pairing the pain-masking behaviors of its acting-out youth with a complementary force: the displays of uncompromising opposition from the maternal figures who protected him.
One mistake that many critics make in assessing these attitudes is emphasizing that Dolan is endorsing them. That’s always seemed of less importance than recognizing that he’s giving very real experience its necessary dramatization. The bigger problem is when Dolan’s still-developing craft leads to formal decisions and informs set pieces that seem to cede control of that experience, and route it to self-conscious style—such as the aspect ratio change in Mommy, or Dolan’s fondness for showy, music-set montages, which occasionally disrupt the flow of the filmmaker’s narratives.
There are instances of this in It’s Only the End of the World. Grimes’s “Oblivion” and O-Zone’s “Dragostea Din Tei” (the “Numa Numa” song) both score little reveries that take us out of the contemporary action and seem like merely a means to motivate the camera away from its rigid form. More frustrating still is the decision here to cap an otherwise moving finale—one that’s already been given a distinctive visual character—with one tacky, obvious visual metaphor. Because so much of this film is implicitly about a reckoning with the rapid passage of time, the silly literalization of that theme at the end only reveals that Dolan still has some growing to do.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.