Xavier Dolan’s latest is a pitch black comedy that applies the stage play tension & confinement of a Tracy Letts work to an occasionally surreal, emotionally devastating familial blowup. It’s essentially what I imagine the ideal version of August: Osage County would be, which I’m saying as someone who’s never seen or read August: Osage County. I left the film shaken, but a little in love, confident that I had understood both what it was trying to communicate and the value of the understatement in the way it got those ideas across. Looking back now, I’m not so sure.
In his 2016 review for Vanity Fair, critic Richard Lawson called It’s Only the End of the World “the most disappointing film at Cannes,” mostly due to its value as an adaptation of its stage play source material, something he admits he was unfamiliar with before he saw the film version. I bring this up not because I disagree with Lawson’s evaluation of the film’s merits as a standalone work of art (which I do), but because he (along with a lot of other critics who didn’t appreciate the film, a lot who did, whoever wrote its plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and presumably everyone else in the world) interpreted the basic details of the story the film was telling wildly differently than I had while watching it alone and without context at this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest. I’m now left confused on what to believe about even the film’s basic themes & plot, since I seemed to have processed it differently from every other person in the world who’s seen it and have no one nearby I can talk to about my interpretation without potentially spoiling its subtly played narrative reveals. I would readily recommend the version of It’s Only the End of the World I saw at the festival, but it seems to be a version of the film that only exists in my own head.
A playwright returns home to confront his family after a decade-long estrangement. His mother, his siblings, and his brother’s wife struggle to keep things cordial without stirring up resentment over his absence and judgemental jabs at his homosexuality. There’s a Krisha-like tension in this constant discord, where the prodigal son’s family can’t go two blissful minutes without viciously criticizing each other’s appearance & attempts to make naturalistic small talk or throwing out transphobic or ableist slurs in crass attempts to liven up the party. An oppressive heat wave and the mother’s frantic scrambling to prepare food & primp her makeup between everyone shouting at each other to shut up drive the story into a series of increasingly disastrous social trainwrecks. At the center of this cycle of blowups is the mystery of why, exactly, the playwright has returned in the first place and what confession or accusation he is building up the courage to reveal. Most interpretations of the story posit it as a tale of loss, one with a very specific historical context given the nature of its source material. I didn’t see it that way. For me, It’s Only the End of the World is a reflection on the cycles of abuse, both emotional & physical, and how familial relationships complicate the ways we cope with that real world evil. The fact that I could be so far off from the hegemony of how to interpret even the film’s basic story should tell you a great deal on how Dolan handles the film’s themes & narratives and how willing he is to make those defining aspects explicit.
The emotional pain at the center of It’s Only the End of the World is communicated entirely through knowing glances & music video-type dives into repressed memories. It’s a lyrical, difficult to pin down narrative style that in some ways tells us far more about the family’s past than any of their minutes-long stage play monologues. In other ways, it leaves these moments wide open for an expansive range of possible interpretations. I thought for sure I knew what a lingering shot of Marion Cotillard’s apologetic eyes or Vincent Cassel’s scraped knuckles meant in the context of the film’s final, unspoken conflict, but after encountering different takes on the film’s basic themes from Lawson’s review & other sources, I’m not nearly as confident I did. Whether that ambiguity in knowing exactly what’s being communicated in these moments is a triumph or a misstep is a question of Dolan’s intent, something I can’t speak of as an audience. I can only say that the version of the movie that played out in my mind was wonderfully balanced between viciously dark humor, poetic visual language, and genuinely devastating dramatic performances (with a fantastic turn from a beastly Ben Kingsley-mode Vincent Cassel in particular). How many people will have that same experience I cannot say, as it seems Dolan wasn’t interested in nailing down the exact details of the source of its conflict-defining emotional pain. I’d argue that disinterest actually works in the film’s favor too, even if it is leaving me to feel alienated as an audience.
If I had one complaint about It’s Only the End of the World, it’d be with some of its music choices. Some needle drops like Grimes & Blink-182 worked for me in the way a similar pop music gestalt shaped last year’s American Honey, but the film is also bookended by a couple eyeroll-worthy music choices as well, so it’s a mixed bag at best. Worse yet, there’s a tendency to overlay some dialogue & intimate close-ups with an oppressive strings score that often teeters between opera & soap opera, never convincingly landing on either side of that divide. These music cues make for an awkward experience initially, but once you find the film’s rhythm that abrasiveness can be just as effective as any of its performances or themes of abuse (or loss or however you want to interpret its overall intent). By the final half hour I was downright in love with its pop music lyricism’s violent clash against its traditional stage drama dialogue, even if it took an effort to get there. Looking back now, though, it’s difficult to focus at all on whatever faults I had with its soundtrack choices (even though the film concludes on one of its most eyerolly examples). All I can think about is how I had an intense viewing experience engaging with themes I’m now not sure were ever there. I’d recommend those not familiar with the stage play source material to go into the movie cold and see how they walk away from the film’s various understated narrative & thematic reveals. And then come talk to me about it, because I’m feeling very much alone in my interpretation & appreciation of the film.