THE DEBUT FILM of the Canadian actor, director and screenwriter Xavier Dolan, the semi-autobiographical drama J’ai tué ma mère, won three awards from the Director’s Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2009 and received a standing ovation after its showing, not least because its creator was just twenty years old at the time of its release. It was a coming out, if I can put it that way, that did not escape the attention of the international and Anglophone press, and Dolan was praised for his audacity and what Peter Towell of the Toronto Star called the film’s “depth of feeling”.
In Juste la fin du monde, Dolan steps out of the spotlight and allows it to be filled instead by some of the towering figures that, as a child actor, Dolan may well have revered. In an interesting example of casting against type, the striking and brilliant Marion Cotillard plays Catherine, the meek and compliant wife of Vincent Cassel’s bellicose Antoine. Antoine and his younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), are not so much welcoming their estranged brother, the quiet and successful playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) as trying to navigate his visit, which is the first since his apparently callous abandonment of the family twelve years ago.
The name of what’s killing Louis is largely unimportant and left unsaid, and much is left unsaid in a film that often shows its meaning and emotion in the moments when the characters do not speak.
We learn early on that Louis is both gay and terminally ill, and it would be wrong to assume, given those two pieces of information, that the illness in question is AIDS if not for the death of the story’s author, the playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, in 1995 from complications related to that disease. The name of what’s killing Louis is largely unimportant and left unsaid, and much is left unsaid in a film that often shows its meaning and emotion in the moments when the characters do not speak. Communication is in point of fact a major theme of Juste la fin du monde, Lagarce’s play, in the capable hands of Dolan, captures very well the irony of a writer failing to find the words to explain his twelve-year absence and to bond with his family so that he can break the news of his impending demise.
The film, like the play, comprises a series of monologues said to Louis––or rather, at Louis––from the members of his family, all of whom have their own particular grievances. For Suzanne, who was a child when Louis left, he cuts a romantic and lofty figure whose “gifts” he does not share with them, while Antoine feels as if he is in the shadow of his more intelligent and articulate younger sibling, and seems even to feel emasculated on account of Louis’s homosexuality. More interesting, I think, is the relationship of Catherine and Louis. There is the suggestion the pair had a close relationship before Louis’s departure at the age of twenty-two, but one that Antoine does not wish them to repair. For the eccentric Martine, who is played brilliantly by Nathalie Baye, Louis is something like the male presence the family craves in the absence of the father.
Juste la fin du monde is a film that some will no doubt find frustrating if not wholly unsatisfying. Answers to the questions that loom large over the events of the film are not forthcoming, and ambiguity seems to become a character all of its own.
Juste la fin du monde is a film that some will no doubt find frustrating if not wholly unsatisfying. Answers to the questions that loom large over the events of the film are not forthcoming, and ambiguity seems to become a character all of its own. But this adds to a tension that Dolan succeeds in maintaining throughout, and is heightened by the intimacy of the surroundings and the presence, in particular, of Antoine, who finds occasion to quarrel in even the most innocuous comment. Of the central five it is Cassel who stands tallest (both literally and figuratively) but there is no weak performance. Ulliel’s quiet and thoughtful turn is reminiscent of his role in the 4e arrondissement vignette in Gus van Sant’s Paris, je t’aime, while Cotillard, who is so often a portrait of confidence and cool on screens on both sides of the Atlantic, is equally as engaging as the shrinking and awkward and endearing Catherine, whose ambiguous relationship with Louis is one of the most interesting sub-plots of the film. The way she stumbles through an explanation of why she called her child Louis is, somehow, extraordinarily compelling, and proof not only of Cotillard’s excellence but the empathy and attention to detail of Dolan himself, who wrote the English subtitles in addition to the French dialogue.
When Dolan became the first Quebecois filmmaker to win the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2016, he quoted the poet Anatole France’s Le Crime de Sylvester Bonnard, saying that he preferred “the madness of passion to the wisdom of indifference.” Juste la fin du monde is a film not so much steeped in or soaked with as flooded with emotion, with indifference conspicuously absent. It seems that what Peter Towell called the “depth of feeling” in J’ai tué ma mère is something of a characteristic of the films of Xavier Dolan, who is showing himself to be one of the best young filmmakers working today.