It’s Only the End of the World is one of those polarizing films; critically, it seems to have been panned and lauded in equal measures following its release, with reviews ranging from “deeply unsatisfying” all the way up to “brilliant”. It was reportedly booed at Cannes, yet went on to win the prestigious Grand Prix award at that very same festival. What on Earth is it about this film that fosters such a deep divide in audience opinion?
It’s a tricky one to review because, to be honest, I can’t even decide if I enjoyed it or not. I was impressed, engrossed even, for approximately the first 45 minutes, then somewhere in the middle of the runtime my reaction seemingly 180’d. By the time the credits rolled I felt as though a ‘boo’ or two could definitely have been justified. The experience of watching It’s Only the End of the World turned out to be polarizing in and of itself.
The protagonist of the film, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), is a writer visiting home for the first time in twelve years. He has an ulterior motive for initiating the family reunion, however, as he has some painful news to share. The meat of the film is gleaned from the dramatic irony of the situation; a lot of the scenes consist of Louis’ mother (Nathalie Baye), brother (Vincent Cassel) and sister (Léa Seydoux) trying to probe Louis into revealing why he’s really there. Marion Cotillard plays Catherine, Louis’ timid sister-in-law whom he is only just meeting for the first time, and her position on the outskirts of the family allows her greater insight into Louis’ intentions.
It’s an exceptionally strong cast. Each of the female players brings their own ingredient to the blend (Seydoux is standout as the sweet and slightly mischievous Suzanne), whilst Cassel shakes things up with his trademark style of vein-popping animosity. They are all pros, and play off each other so well that it makes the scenes in which they all feature explode from the screen. Ulliel counterbalances the friction between the family members by bringing a quiet fragility to the character of Louis, his performance a reservoir of calm that is sorely needed amongst all the cacophony.
Because, my god, there is a lot of bickering throughout the film. Describing the masses of dialogue as ‘intense’ would be too modest. And director Xavier Dolan’s style of shooting doesn’t make it any easier to digest – pretty much the whole film is shot in extreme close-up so that we cannot escape a single flicker of expression or bead of sweat making its way across the actors’ faces. During the scenes that are especially ‘shouty’, this claustrophobic framing makes watching and listening to what’s happening on screen difficult, inducing a feeling of discomfort which only mounts as the film goes on.
It’s also frustrating to watch because none of the characters seem to be getting anywhere. We end the film exactly where we started, nothing learned, nothing gained (although maybe having acquired a slight headache). You get the impression that this was Dolan’s intention, though, the message of the film rooted somewhere in the family’s stubborn refusal to listen to Louis or make space for his announcement. There is something real and heartfelt at the film’s core, but it’s somewhat obscured by its own intensity and the way in which it’s presented to us.
In the film’s closing scene there is a bit of vomit-inducing triteness in the form of some trapped-bird symbolism, and this inadvertently acts as a representation of the state of mind of the audience by the end of the movie. The film’s vociferous elements combine to make you feel like you are stuck, overwhelmed by endless close-ups and confused about whether what you’ve just watched was any good.
Review by Jade O’Halloran
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