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  • Ravi Swami

"It's Only The End Of The World", Dir: Xavier Dolan, 2016

I was in two minds about writing a review of Xavier Dolan's rather dark 2016 film, "It's Only The End Of The World", watched last night on recommendation from Mubi via Apple +.

Both the title and subject - mortality - suggests what must have been going through everyone's mind during the COVID19 pandemic, so what was the draw ?

I generally don't seek out dramas centered on family dynamics, though it is a genre in cinema of which directors like Mike Leigh are a master, however, his main USP, and possibly saving grace, is in tempering often agonizing exchanges between characters with gentle humour.

That said, there is a kind of slow-motion train-wreck appeal of films that show families unravelling, when viewed from the outside. Another draw is Marion Cottilard, who in this film again demonstrates her ability to inhabit different characters convincingly.

The film, and Cottilard, are supported by a strong ensemble cast with the subject of the film, "Louis", played by Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel ("La Haine") as "Antoine", Louis's older brother and husband of "Catherine" (Cottilard), Lea Seydoux as "Suzanne", his younger sister and Nathalie Baye as the mother.

The rather sombre tone is established at the start as Louis, a successful writer, returns to his family after a period of 12 years absence, determined to give them the bad news that he is dying of cancer, and opens with a train journey from the city to the backwoods town where he grew up, in the middle of a stiflingly hot summer - Dolan, of French Canadian origin, chooses not to identify the town by name or location - it could be rural France or Canada - it's simply "somewhere", as if to imply the universality of the situation.

Louis arrives, and what follows are a series of awkward exchanges shot in tight close-ups as the curiously listless Louis meets his family and is introduced to Antoine's wife (Cotillard) for the first time, who proceeds to fill him in about her young children, who he has not seen.

Louis' plan is to leave at an appointed time after spending a day or two and revealing the bad news, but to his family he is a virtual stranger with whom they struggle to communicate, especially where his boorish older brother Antoine (Cassel) is concerned. It is never made clear where the father is - perhaps he left with Louis, leaving his wife to look after his siblings.

Dolan explores themes of betrayal and abandonment that echo similar themes in films like Fellini's "I Vitelloni" - Antoine struggles to be a father-figure in a family of women but is not up to the job, compounded by the fact that he is made acutely aware of his station in life in a mediocre job in a nondescript village following the arrival of his younger, more successful brother Louis who has found his fortune in the city, which leads to anguished exchanges between the two that reach a head when Louis agrees to accompany him on a drive to buy cigarettes.

A combination of an earlier flashback set in Louis' childhood bedroom and Antoine casually mentioning that his best friend has died of cancer have revealed that Louis is gay and adds further to the overwhelming sense that things will not turn out well.

The climax of the film is centered around an al fresco dinner table as their mother valiantly tries to mediate between Antoine's increasingly bitter outbursts directed at Louis, but also at Suzanne (Seydoux), as Cotillard's Catherine looks on hopelessly, and throughout we are aware that the moment for Louis to make an announcement is drawing near.

The vast gulf in communication that exists between Louis and his family is made clear on the car journey with Antoine, as Louis rattles off banal details of his arrival at the airport with the eloquence of the writer that he is, and this irritates Antoine who accuses him of dressing up his speech but not actually saying anything, whereas he freely admits that he is a man of few words, inarticulate and uneducated.

The irony of course is that in view of his predicament, Louis is rendered speechless and unable to communicate what he has set out to - that he is dying.

Ultimately Louis leaves prematurely, finally lacking the courage to reveal the truth in an already intolerable situation and resigned to the fact that any reconciliation with his abandoned family is impossible, and in a rather poetic closing sequence, a bird, trapped in the house as a cuckoo clock strikes 4.00 - marking the time of his planned departure - flutters past his head and dies gasping at his feet, overcome by exhaustion and the summer heat - a symbolic portent for Louis.

I had to ask myself why I would want to watch a film that highlights many of the emotions people must have gone through during the global pandemic - certainly in my family, as hoped-for visits by siblings in other countries have been cancelled, to be replaced by frequent "Zoom" video calls and where individual isolation gives rise to the opening of old wounds, resentments and feelings of hopelessness, coupled with health issues - when perhaps people would prefer to watch simple escapism and anything but a film about too-familiar family dysfunction.

While there is an overwhelming sense of foreboding in "It's Only The End of The World", my takeaway from it is that perhaps a little kindness and forgiveness would go a long way toward healing rifts rather than baring the soul with anguish at life's injustices and directing bitterness towards others, something expressed in the character of "Catherine" played by Marion Cotillard.

I'd find it hard to give this film a hearty recommendation given the current circumstances but it's worth a look, both Cotillard and Cassel are both excellent in it and the themes explored are universally applicable and recognizable.

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