Dolan Directs: Juste la fin du monde / It’s Only the End of the World (2016)

In this second adaptation of someone else’s work (after Tom à la ferme), Xavier Dolan again has the opportunity to explore a mother/son dynamic, which is clearly a touchstone for him. There is also the wider family relationship on show, with all the dramatic confrontations you would expect.

Originally a stage play, Dolan has avoided the pitfalls of, for example, the recently released Fences, which retained its staginess and lacked a cinematic feel. The camerawork of Juste la fin du monde (again cinematographer André Turpin) sticks very closely to tight shots of each character as they speak or listen so that the viewer is with that one person at that moment; there is no need for ‘big’ acting when the camera is so close – the slightest facial twitch tells all. It’s very pleasing, then, that Gaspard Ulliel won a César for his performance, alongside Xavier Dolan’s two for direction and editing.

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.

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