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Pain, bluster, to no avail

Golden boy Xavier Dolan loses his way despite a mercurial cast

Gaspard Ulleil in It's Only The End Of The World. Photo © Mongkol Major

On paper this is a pantheon of contemporary French acting: Gaspard Ulleil, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Natalie Baye. The director is Xavier Dolan, the Quebecois wunderkind who's had his five films premiered at Cannes at the age of just 27.

It's Only The End Of The World

Starring Gaspard Ulleil, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Natalie Baye.
Directed by Xavier Dolan.
In French with English and Thai subtitles at limited cinemas.

It's Only The End Of The World, too, was up at the elite Cannes competition last May and -- cue the gasp of horror -- won the Grand Prix, or the runner-up prize, much to the shock of the attendants. The golden boy of French-speaking Canadian cinema was so hurt by the critical mauling and mockery ("it is the end of the world!") that he vowed not to return to Cannes again, a proclamation we believe the young man meant as jest.

Adapted from a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, It's Only The End Of The World is a stylish fest of bluster, unwarranted ranting, close-up emotionalism and hollow theatricality. The high-drama is supposed to draw you deep into this family feud and hidden wounds, but instead it pushes you away, keeping you at bay as you wish you didn't have to witness another shouting match from these half-understood and good-looking siblings.

Ulleil plays Louis, a young playwright who returns home after a long absence to announce to his family that he's dying of a terminal illness. Awaiting him are the high-strung members of his family, the flamboyant mother (Baye), the pot-smoking sister (Seydoux), the vindictive brother (Cassel) and his timid wife (Cotillard). Prone to drama, grudges and hazy reminiscences, these people -- and in effect the whole film -- is so self-absorbed with their own internal pains that they leave no chance for Louis to say what he has come to say. Nobody cares he's dying because they're too busy nursing their scars.

As a theatre piece, which it originally was, perhaps it works better. Dolan's choice of claustrophobic emo-play here goes overboard; instead of being powerful it's maddening, and where we're supposed to feel intimate with Louis' suffering through the use of shallow focus, we feel like unwelcome witnesses to his confusion and embarrassment, especially when he confronts his insecure, arrogant brother.

To his fans -- from the films I Killed My Mother, Mommy and the most mature Laurence Anyways -- Dolan's brash confidence is refreshing. To others, it's just annoying. The writer-director's explorations of family pains often include people shouting at each other and sometimes featuring surreal interludes that look like an impromptu fashion show. In the 60s, the radical European directors were dubbed les enfants terribles -- a compliment to their rebellious spirit. Dolan's young age and his brand of art house melodrama may remind us of that label, and yet the navel-gazing and stylistic pompousness has made him a divisive figure. The good thing is that at just 27, his career has only begun, regardless of his already-stellar track record.

It's Only The End Of The World is the director's attempt to appear serious -- and everything screams "serious" at you, especially Vincent Cassel. The A-list cast are like prized fish in a murky bowl, their flaws magnified. It's not, as the mockery goes, the end of the world for Dolan, but it's hardly something we wish to remember this golden boy by, either.

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