It’s Only the End of the World tells the story of Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a gay playwright who is dying of an unspecified illness. He has decided to return home to see his family, with the intention of telling them about his impending death, even though he has not seen them and only exchanged a few brief letters in 12 years. His younger sister, Suzanne (Lea Seydoux), doesn’t remember much about Louis, but still feels a strong affection for him, and wishes that he would come around more often. Louis’ mother, Martine (Nathalie Baye), welcomes him with open arms, and reminisces about the past. She is surprised that he has never met Catherine (Marion Cotillard), his sister-in-law and wife to his older brother, Antoine (Vincent Cassel). Catherine is very timid, and struggles to complete a sentence, but still manages to form a connection with Lois; whereas Antoine is somewhat disdainful of Lois, and has a short temper with the rest of the family. The reunion quickly devolves into infighting and petty bickering, and while they occasionally have moments of civility, these interludes are generally fleeting.
Director Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats) has created an interesting, albeit difficult character study that attempts to wade through the mire of familial turmoil, and establish petty fighting as a barrier to functional, loving relationships. The highest praise for the film must go to the actors, each of whom give superb performances. Nathalie Baye is perfect as the vein, distracted, but nonetheless devoted mother. She is always doing her best to ignore the issues bubbling just below the surface and keep up the appearance of a warm, affectionate family. Lea Seydoux is the surly younger sister who just wants to move out of her mother’s house. Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel both give excellent performances as polar opposites. She is the shy, self-effacing wife, while he plays the bitter, violently angry husband. Dolan does a fine job at directing his actors, and though the script is occasionally tedious (particularly when Catherine is trying to finish a story or Louis is neglecting to comment on anything), the actors all do very well at bringing the characters to life and recreating the awkward and uncomfortable atmosphere created when family members simply can’t get along.
However, despite the interesting dynamics between the various characters, Louis is one of the primary drawbacks of the film. Though there is nothing wrong with Gaspard Ulliel’s performance, the character makes what is already a mildly difficult film to watch even more frustrating. Louis is the sensitive, thoughtful playwright, who has distanced himself from the family 600for one reason or another, but suddenly returns to tell them that he is going to die. In theory, he should be a character that we can sympathize with, but he often comes across as overly self-involved, pretentious, and ultimately unhelpful in mending his family’s many problems. Rather than speaking up, he often chooses silence, only occasionally giving his family vague answers and excuses for his prolonged absence. Even when it is made clear to Louis that the rest of the family looks up to him and would like him to be a part of their lives, he only seems mildly interested in making their hopes a reality.
Ultimately, it is not that It’s Only the End of the World is a bad film, but simply a film that will probably not appeal to many people’s tastes. While the bickering and uncomfortable situations are not necessarily a drawback, they do make the film difficult to watch at times, and the lack of relatable characters makes the entire endeavor somewhat taxing on viewers. In addition, the style comes across as a little pretentious, given that the script is rather simplistic and uninterested in taking the story in a more philosophical direction, though it certainly would have benefited from such a change.
Rating: ★★★ out of 5
It’s Only the End of the World is currently available to stream on Netflix.