Cannes 2016 – It’s Only the End of the World (Xavier Dolan)

Editor’s note: any mention of ‘C’est juste la fin du monde’ in this review refers to the original source material (Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play); any mention of ‘It’s Only the End of the World’ refers to Xavier Dolan’s film.

Since the beginning of his career, Xavier Dolan has been unable to shake the complaints of critics who have criticised him for their perception of his narcissism and a love of style over substance. He’s been accused of biting off more than he can chew, and dismissed as lacking the maturity or experience to tackle the themes he explores. It’s Only the End of the World, the twenty-seven-year-old Québécois director’s widely panned sixth feature, is Cannes ’69’s most astonishing discovery, showing that his adventurous experiments in filmmaking have culminated in a journey that has taken him to a place where he can look at cinema with a fresh pair of eyes.

What is immediately striking about Dolan’s choices in what to do with It’s Only the End of the World is by nature of it being an adaptation of a stage play, Jean-Luc Lagarce’s C’est juste la fin du monde. Filmmakers who set out to “open” literary and, especially, stage adaptations for the screen have always faced the difficulty of finding a way to make the material seem new and cinematic. Though C’est juste la fin du monde‘s text is full of loaded, meticulously layered dialogue, Dolan moves at such a brisk pace that it is nearly impossible to immediately process all of its meanings, but it is scarcely needed. Essentially, though it is not immediately apparent, Juste la fin du monde‘s plot is much more simple than it appears: Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is a dying gay playwright who returns home to his family (who he has not seen in twelve years) to tell them that he is dying. As he tries to find the courage to make this admission (keep in mind, though it is never an explicitly stated parallel in the text, that Jean-Luc Lagarce was dying of AIDS when he wrote C’est juste la fin du monde), it becomes incredibly difficult to do this once he sees that all of his family is in pain, and blame him, each other, and themselves for this, and each of them is in desperate pursuit of their own form of freedom. Despite C’est juste la fin du monde‘s loquacious nature, it is imperative to understand that all we need to know is that while filled with words, its words attempt to fill an emptiness that drives its characters away from each other.

While it is easy to go into It’s Only the End of the World already missing the collaboration with Québécoise screen legends Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément (the leads of three of his previous five films), briefly stepping away from them has proven to be a task that requires Dolan to step out of his comfort zone: the two actresses have repeatedly grounded Dolan’s hysterical, melodramatic proclivities, to the point where they share his spotlight, or even steal the show. Without them, but still armed with a talented cast that is not as familiar with how to navigate his excesses, for the first time Dolan is the star of this show. Each actor is undoubtedly good in their part, but they primarily function as vehicles to facilitate Dolan’s gutsy vision. Shot nearly exclusively in extreme close-ups (reminiscent of Laurence Anyways’  colour scheme and lighting, composition that is unmistakeably Dolan), this cast of famous faces seem shockingly familiar and natural in the thread work of Dolan’s visuals. Their extreme close-ups, in tandem with the strenuous step of their dialogue, force It’s Only the End of the World‘s audience to forget what is being said, having to simply watch these actors and focus on Dolan’s cinema.

Any lesbian, gay, or trans* person can attest that coming out is never easy. Many have found that the attempt to plunge into total honesty with their family and friends has been so daunting, that it has taken numerous attempts en route to finally breaking that ice. As difficult as that may be, how much more paralyzing would it be to have to admit that one is dying (especially with the added humiliation in having to cite sexually transmitted pathology as the cause of this)? Many in It’s Only the End of the World‘s audience will find themselves wanting to scream, “Spit it out, already!” as Louis repeatedly looks for openings where he can reveal his inevitable fate, but a uniquely Queer sensibility at the heart of this battle is distinctly indentifiable to anyone who has worn these shoes. Considering this, Dolan expands on themes he has examined in Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm. In Laurence Anyways, Laurence Alia (a transgendered male to female) is so overwhelmed by a lifetime of suppressing her identity, that she is bursting to tell her loved ones. In Tom at the Farm, Tom, the survivor of a dead lover who had never come out to his family, grapples with whether or not he should illuminate this relationship to strangers. In It’s Only the End of the World, Louis has to decide if he is to share his pain and foresight of his demise with his family, who are already suffering. While this is reminiscent of earlier Dolan, it is never a retread, because while his return to this theme is one that comes full circle, it is a singular pinnacle. And the delivery is a venture into untried territory: in It’s Only the End of the World, the juxtaposition of hysterics and mumbling is profound in its personification of a failure to be able to express oneself through and because of words. Words fill all that happens here, but when Dolan eliminates them, all that is left is silence.

It’s Only the End of the World is a cinematic manifesto that is a rejection of every accepted cinematic convention in classical or current sensibilities. It is the boldest proclamation since Dogme ’95, particularly because it is the antithesis of this doctrine: von Trier and his cohorts proposed wide-shot long takes, the elimination of extra-diagetic music, and natural, minimalistic acting; Dolan proposes suffocating close-ups, a consuming scoring and pop soundtrack, and utterly stylized, mannered performance. Not since Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has a play adaptation been so progressively cinematic; but also, since then, it has been the first to so fearlessly challenge film’s language and syntax. Cinematic history is ripe with examples of when writers and film historians missed the boat in recognizing medium-changing masterpieces, and contemporary critics may just find themselves judged by history in their dismissal of Xavier Dolan’s audacious work. Maestro Xavier Dolan is able and willing to re-invent cinema: it’s not the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new one.