A ball bearing drops onto its track, the little sphere rolling smoothly held between metal wires, its path never too crooked, never uneven, never too wide or narrow. Marbles need support, but otherwise, they seem like little else but totems used to set things off in motion, as the grander design of the path reveals the intricate workings of something like a Rube Goldberg Machine. For me, it was a letter, or an invoice, rather, that arrived a year after my father’s death and a few weeks after my first semester in college, on Christmas Eve. Seated in the living room, before the enormous television that acted as the only string that could keep my mother, my sister, and me together in any semblance. The string between the three of us had been taut since his death – a combination of emotional abuse, physical abuse, pathological lying, betrayal, and manipulation had been the things to cause the relationships to unravel without control. I avoided leaving my room whenever I was home, lest any threads deteriorate beyond fixing. But, as always, returning home sent me into a fury and depression. My skin crawled when I knew I had to be at home. My mother and I were rarely not at each other’s throats, a simple question to either of us (“What do you want for dinner?”) enough to send us down a spiraling, dizzying path to a shouting match. This letter was the catalyst, the climax taking place the next morning when my sister placed her hands around my throat and, in an effort to get her off of me, I smashed a coffee cup on her head. Merry Christmas to us.
Being in the midst of an argument with a loved one, a family member especially, is like seeing red. Everything disappears – your sense of space, time, the language you use. They’re either volcanic eruptions, building up, or when a flame touches the sulfur tip of a match: an overwhelming burst, a spectacle.
If Xavier Dolan knows anything, he knows that he likes spectacle. His most recent film, It’s Only the End of the World, returns to family dysfunction on a slightly larger scale; where his previous films concerned two or three characters at most, giving the works a focus and a balance, his newest jumps around between the four family members of Louis, a gay prodigal son returning home after a 12 year absence, with the intent of telling his family that he is dying. He is the ball bearing, the marble, and domino, and yet he is not unaffected by the events that follow his homecoming. He must contend with his younger sister, Suzanne (Lea Seydoux), who always wished to know him; his smothering mother Martine (Nathalie Baye); his petty and volatile older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel); and Antoine’s perceptive and compassionate wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Before long, madness ensues.
Dolan has never been apologetic about the loudness of his movies; for him, the volume of the arguments in I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways, and Mommy are kind of what make the films. Particularly their deep understanding of the complexities of personal and familial arguments. There are gradations in not only the words themselves, but how elevated – in reading and in volume – the language can become. Words can be thrown like a knife, or recede in pity, pathetically in a corner. Taking a page from classical and neo-classical melodramas, Dolan has been exceptional at nudging his actors to stretch out on the spectrum of argument having. Characters try to retain control over their lives in their words, self-correcting, self-editing almost like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? They can be killer bee volatile or have a splinter like subtlety and devastation. Words are able to live on their own as weaponry, but get lost in the crossfire.
I suspect that his success here is partially due to smaller number of people. Here, with a larger cast, and adapting Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play of the same name, that balance and savvy of knowing how to use actors and language in such high intensity scenes seems to have disappeared, drowned out by Dolan’s formal decisions. Actors’ go from 1 to 11 rapidly, but little time is given for the in-between state. The dysfunction in It’s Only the End of the World feels a bit more mechanical, less concerned with how multifaceted the language is.
His second (theater) adaptation after Michel Marc Bouchard’s Tom at the Farm (released in 2013, and possibly his best work), Dolan has opted to shoot the film primarily in close-up shots. This makes sense contextually to some degree: on the one hand, it’s an extension to his neo-portraiture work of Mommy, which used the 1:1 aspect ratio as a way to challenge both framing conventions and the look of film portraiture; and on the other, the it brings the idea of “going home, and everyone is up in my face” to its logical extreme. There are almost only faces, Dolan only ever departing from this technique for a flashback here, a contemplative smoke there. But just because it makes contextual sense doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good decision. The problem is that Dolan doesn’t give us a sense of scale or a sense of space. A majority of the film takes place in his family’s newish home, but what that looks like it limited to a few rooms that ultimately feel disparate from one another. Camille sings at the beginning of the film, “Home is where it hurts.” But internally and externally, there’s not enough to conceive of a home or a house in the first place. The scale of conversation, and thus their impact in theirs of their audibility, is also skewed because we rarely get a sense of how far people are from one another, or where they are even in the room. It’s not impossible to jar the audience emotionally and intellectually in an interesting way with this technique: in a scene between Louis and his mother, Dolan shoots in a relatively conventional shot/reverse shot style. Towards the end of the conversation, he cuts to a two shot, revealing a good seven feet between them. It’s one of the few scenes that appears to be imbued with calculation, with power. The rest of the film bobs in and out of having its formal experimentation distract from everything else, and without the insight into the spectacle as his previous work.
At its worst, it looks and feels like self-parody, particularly the flashback scene where Louis reminisces about a boy whom he adored. Dreamily shot, doused in purple and green, the boys presumably fuck and smoke and do coke, without any true eroticism. It’s self-consciously sexy, as if Charlie Puth’s “Marvin Gaye” should be playing in the background. It’s a pale imitation of similar interludes of sex and confession in Dolan’s Heartbeats. In spite of Dolan’s technical prowess, here achieving some gorgeous shots, and them allowing them to be steamrolled over by the close ups and acting, I think I know what It’s Only the End of the World’s problem is.
Perhaps the issue is that it has no real perspective beyond its surface. The machinations of the family are basically rehashes of both the director’s work and other writers’ established material. This wouldn’t be so much an issue if he seemed to care about the consequences, as opposed to allowing these interactions to be kind of nebulous. They’re not textured, they’re boring tools. The question of why Louis is returning in the first place functions more like art house dialogue than something the film is actually interested in exploring. He says he wants to regain some autonomy in his life, and certainly there are implications of going home to “see how time has modified and ruined” what’s remaining and to drop the bomb of his inevitable death reveal as much about him as they do his family. But those ideas are sunken. Even the possibility of the “decrepitude”, as the late John B. McLemore said of his Shittown, of his family, how they’ve been morphed or, conversely, how they’ve remained the same in all of their petty ways seems squandered. I think this is because the play is no longer explicitly political. Lagarce’s work has a strain of politics in them, and It’s Only the End of the World in particular dealt with the impact of AIDS; that’s the terminal illness Louis has. Ostensibly, then, the play wrestles with, as Tony Kushner describes in Angels in America, “the limits of tolerance”, that the tolerance and the dysfunctional dynamics of the family are more insipid than, I guess, regular familial issues. The implication is also that Louis’ work as a playwright himself is political, as Antoine makes a glib remark about this in a car scene that should work, but fails miserably, because of its lack of engagement, its transformation of text into barely subtext. And while Dolan has resisted being political much of his career, apoliticality is still a political choice.
So what does It’s Only the End of the World have to say about anything? That time changes little and self-entitlement masks itself as the desire to be “the master of [one’s] life”? These aren’t explosions that are of interest; they’re fireworks of the same color, at the same height, with barely a trace of variation. There’s no consideration for the smoke that trails behind, the intricacies of the blast. It’s only a blast. It’s Only the End of the World is especially devastating to me as a young queer boy that has had so much admiration for Xavier Dolan’s output; his films strike a personal chord with me, and I finally felt “understood” while watching the verbal clashing between Hubert (Dolan) and his mother (Anne Dorval) in I Killed My Mother, and I felt confronted with my own flaws and demons in the altercations in between Die (Dorval) and her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) in Mommy, like mirror images. It’s not that I need this film to be proof that he understands me, a random writer from Connecticut, but it’s surprising and disappointing that there’s such a mishandling of the material – that moments of genius and compassion are sidelined for spectacle, instead allowing them to converge. Familial volatility is multidimensional, but here it’s only in close-ups.
At the end of an essay I wrote about regarding those aforementioned films, I said I didn’t know how that story will end. That’s still true. We’re on light speaking terms. But It’s Only the End of the World not only doesn’t know what the end of its story is, but relishes the mess the marble leaves, without interest in the marble itself or its rail. There are no scars, where there should be.