Louis, suffering from an unspecified terminal illness, constantly checks his watch, only realizing for the first time in his life how precious time really is. Xavier Dolan adapted It’s Only the End of the World from the stage play Juste la fin du monde, and since its release it’s become his most notoriously disliked feature. The film follows Louis as he is forced confront his family with the news and, while biding his time, he finds the task increasingly more difficult once he starts reconnecting with each of them. Unlike his much acclaimed Mommy (2014), It’s Only the End of the World fails to harvest the same emphatic sympathies of his characters. Here, they’re loud, boisterous and obnoxious, the only fragments of subtlety can be found in the soft-touch of its five leads (Gaspard Ulliel, Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Nathalie Baye and Marion Cotillard) who—unlike the overzealous Dolan—are capable of dialing emotions back for profound effect, instead of burying it under stylistic affectation, which only masquerades as heartfelt emotion.
Dolan’s Mommy (2014) was filmed in daring 1:1 aspect ratio which barely confined its characters’ passions to the screen—a format emphasizing the constraints of a single mother and her hyperactive teenaged son, while also emphasizing a strong (natural) intimacy between the two. It’s Only the End of the World is shot in a safely palatable aspect ratio of 1.85:1, however, Dolan abuses close-ups and shallow focus to a point where End of the World becomes even more claustrophobic and unwatchable than Mommy—who at least only had the effort of bottling in three characters (only one of whom I could describe as ‘uncontainable’). Xavier Dolan uses words like “verbose” and “prolix” to describe the stage play, words that seem jarringly antithetical to his nature of filmmaking. All the emotions Dolan seem to express in previous films are transcribed beautifully, and hauntingly, through visuals alone.
Part of Dolan’s nature is to exaggerate the quality of an image for an intended emotional effect—this worked (if somewhat superficially) for Mommy in ways words couldn’t do justice. Mommy, which was sincere and empathetic, actually felt autobiographical despite being one of his most narratively and tonally contrived films. Every little gesture in It’s Only the End of the World feels perversely exaggerated to the point where even the tiniest intimate gestures are given the clout of typical filmic “big moments”. Every member of the family here (minus Louis) wear their heart on their sleeve in a brazenfaced, confessional-like stance that scream “any moment might be our last”. Whether it’s literal or behavioral subtext, it’s the type of disingenuous and irritatingly candid maundering that makes it easy to dislike Dolan and his supposed ‘truth-telling’. It comes across as too straight and in-your-face with its own emotions, when Mommy—whether intentional or not—only had appeal to our emotions.
The most disappointing thing about seeing It’s Only the End of the World, for me, was how it made me despise the idiosyncratic and surprisingly bold choices made in Dolan’s previous work (and also the reason why I constantly keep going back to Mommy). I can’t stand a majority of the pop songs Dolan seems to adore, but there’s such an earnest, authentic touch to his application of them, and the specific scenes he chooses to use them, which made even the most artificial and obnoxiously upbeat of them into personalized, self-embodying anthems. In this film pop music blasts to a numbing and unfeeling effect, embodying less of Dolan’s intimate sentiment and more of his newly refurbished zeal (and ego) as a “must-see” filmmaker.
There’s still an ambience of Xavier Dolan’s better tendencies here (the emotive choice of lighting stand out), but End of the World seems petulantly inclined to retread on the characteristics that tested his relationship with his viewership to begin with. I assume a lot of his devotees are going to like this one, but I can’t count myself among them. Since winning over ‘most’ critics with Mommy, as well as nabbing the Cannes’ much sought after Jury Prize, Dolan seems too transfixed on making his artistic voice louder, when he should be taking strides to studying and improving his craft. All of the performances here actually work, the actors seem to have a good handle on the emotions (which, as a stage adaption, could have easily come across as ‘actorly’ and over-the-top). Marion Cotillard is refreshingly meek and passive, compared to her more voracious counterparts. There’s no depth or ‘human’ quality in Dolan’s directing, or his writing, it’s all loud and bombastic emotion blanketed beneath extravagant, self-conscious over-direction.