At 27, Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s prolific filmmaking career has encompassed six movies in eight years, so it was only a matter of time before one of them left something to be desired. Ever since his striking debut “I Killed My Mother,” in which the former child actor also starred and directed at the age of 19, Dolan has shown a remarkable penchant for innovative storytelling methods, stylistic ambition and grand, operatic moments. Even when his films stumble through uneven tones or erratic plot twists, Dolan always comes out swinging, with the overarching theme of angry, passionate characters infusing each new effort with sizzling attitude.
“It’s Only the End of the World” reduces those ingredients to their simplest variables, which is especially telling since he didn’t originate the material. Lesson learned: Dolan is a master of his own domain, but on less steady footing when exploring someone else’s turf.
Yet this slickly shot ensemble piece, adapted by Jean-Luc Lagarce, manages to find some high points in its first-rate cast, which includes some of the best that modern French cinema has to offer. At its center is Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a young man estranged from his relatives who returns home after a dozen years to confront them about his terminal illness. A gay man whose lifestyle is out of sync with his family’s values, he’s presumably suffering from AIDS, though the ailment goes unmentioned — perhaps because Louis himself sees a bigger psychological hurdle ahead, “the illusion that I am the master of my life,” as he explains in an opening voiceover.
Clearly, that’s not the case back home, where he faces his overbearing mother Martine (Nathalie Baye, buried in wigs and makeup that make her look like a mashup of Divine and Morticia Addams), his introverted sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), and older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel), who carts along his soft-spoken wife (Marion Cotillard, in an underutilized role), a new addition to the brood. While most of the family attempts to welcome Louis back home, Antoine can’t seem to accept Louis’ decision to cut ties years earlier, and the tension lingers in the air. Cassel, who excels at these sort of snippy, pouting characters, instantly commands the screen and embodies the chief resistance to Louis’ reappearance.
Mostly set in the confines of the family’s home, “It’s Only the End of the World” rises above its inherent theatricality thanks to Dolan’s ongoing visual invention, as he recycles the high-contrast lighting and shifting colors that first cropped up in his work with “Lawrence, Anyways.” However, where those movies applied their distinctive cinematic tricks to a complex set of circumstances, “It’s Only the End of the World” — which clocks in at just under 100 minutes — unfurls like an outline for a formulaic story of constant bickering and resentment that no amount of pretty images can salvage.
As if to pad the material, Louis’ home visits are interspersed with cheesy flashbacks to happier times in his youth, set to pop music and baked in sunlight like outtakes from a Chanel ad that lost its way. Abrupt throwaway lines address major events from the past, but aside from Louis no single character develops enough specificity to explain the desire for reconciliation.
But that’s part of the point: Louis is doing what he thinks he needs to do, only to realize that he’s better off on his own. Nobody epitomizes that possibility better than Antoine, whom Cassel eventually turns into an explosive monstrosity unable to clarify his rage even as he’s capable of firing it off with constant insults. He gives the movie a an edge otherwise lacking its listless set of pretty images and terse confrontations.
If “It’s Only the End of the World” was Dolan’s debut, one could see the clear vision of a young filmmaker reaching to make an aggressively engaging drama, much as Dolan did to great success with his last feature, “Mommy.” In this case, he’s crafted the semblance of a substantial movie that never quite gets where it was supposed to go. Fortunately, considering Dolan’s current rate of production, there’s no question he’ll keep trying to get there.
“It’s Only the End of the World” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.