This was the film I had built my entire (if short) London Film Festival experience around. As soon as I knew I was going to be in town on the evening of the UK premiere, I booked my ticket.
Director Xavier Dolan is currently one of my favourite directors. His films aren’t always easy to watch, but they are often daring, always intense, and highly emotional.
I’m also fascinated by him when he’s interviewed – he speaks so eloquently, passionately and confidently about his own film-making, rarely referencing other directors or films. It genuinely doesn’t appear to matter to him what others are doing. He’s also quick to speak out if he feels he or his work is being attacked, which has provoked some backlash and personal criticism as a result. I have always forgiven him thus far, yet his latest, Juste la fin du monde, was extremely divisive at Cannes this year – winning the Grand Prix (second jury choice), yes, but the announcement of this was booed by journalists – and Dolan had much to say about this. Several reviews effectively trashed it, yet others were full of praise. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Turns out, it was superb!
Dolan has assembled a stellar cast who are all on top form, even if not in roles you would imagine for them. Returning home after a 12 year absence, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is waiting for the right time to share his news with his mother, brother and sister. Also there is his brother’s wife, whom he has never met but who seems to instantly understand him. They are both quiet outsiders among the quarrelsome family members.
Nathalie Baye’s mother, in her exaggerated make-up, cheerily tries to maintain a façade of familial togetherness, while Antoine (a magnificent Vincent Cassel) belligerently provokes both his wife and his brother across the dining table. He’s so obnoxious, and it’s only later that we get an inkling as to what’s been eating him for the last 12 years. Only an inkling though; it’s never totally spelled out. Léa Seydoux as the baby sister is eagerly awaiting the chance to have a mature relationship with the brother she’s missed for so long. And Marion Cotillard is the dowdiest you will ever see her – bullied and humiliated by her husband Antoine, her nervous speech patterns are excruciating, yet she shares a couple of extended moments with Louis where so much is conveyed between them without a word being spoken. For a film which is verbose, to say the least, these moments are the most powerful.
And this for me is the centre of the film. Louis is a playwright, he makes his living in words for thousands to hear, but for the duration of his visit he says very little. When the moments come to express himself, he backs down, chooses to say nothing, apologises. The rest of the family is also unable to express their true feelings, and so hide behind aggressive, defensive language which is the exact opposite of what they want to say. They are flawed human beings, difficult to spend time with, yet very real.
When it is fully released in the UK next year, I’ll be first in the queue for a re-watch, no doubt about it.
After the screening, Dolan was interviewed on stage by BFI’s Clare Stewart and it was such a treat to hear him speak about his film in person. He talked about transforming the script from stage to screen play, how this affected his decision to make use of the close up, and the lighting choices he made for the final scene. I wanted to sit for another hour and listen to him. Dolan is human, and he is not perfect. Neither are his films. But they are remarkable nevertheless, and I am an unapologetic admirer of both the man and his work.