Even an enfant terrible must grow up sooner or later. Prodigal French-Canadian Xavier Dolan’s trouble is that he’s done so along the Cannes Croisette, where he screened his debut (2009’s I Killed My Mother) aged just 20, then won acclaim for increasingly ambitious works (trans drama Laurence Anyways, Hitchcockian thriller Tom at the Farm), before seeing latest It’s Only the End of the World (***, 15, 98 mins) pilloried by non-Francophone critics. One accusation was that Dolan had blanded out – to reuse the titular qualifier, that he’d “only” added subtitles to those awards-hungry dysfunctional-family dramas that premiere every year, restyling August: Osage County in a striped Breton top.
Following the bristling expansiveness of Dolan’s 2014 opus Mommy, this adaptation of the late Jean-Luc Lagarce’s autobiographical play can, admittedly, feel self-contained. After a twelve-year exile, talk-of-the-town writer Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) returns to the countryside for dinner with his clan: bluff older sibling Antoine (Vincent Cassel), apparently determined to spend the occasion with his back to the room, his empathetic wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard), younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), and – a Dolan staple, as per those titles – their overbearing maman (Nathalie Baye). As convention dictates, Louis has news to break; the hard part, naturellement, will be getting a word in.
Dolan finds an arresting visual analogue for this domestic ambush, composing each set-to as a wall of looming close-ups. In the year of I, Daniel Blake and Toni Erdmann’s affecting naturalism, those Cannes critics perhaps resented being forcefed such conspicuous starriness: few directors have dwelled to this extent on Cassel’s abrasive cragginess (scabbed knuckles, iron-filing stubble), or the melting softness in Cotillard’s gaze and smile. Yet the tactic works dramatically, punching up how these relatives have become strangers whose gestures require close interpretation; it’s moving indeed when the camera finally looks Antoine in the eye, and spots years of broiling intellectual inferiority.
Nothing else quite subverts reunion formula. Lagarce provides Dolan with one loaded conversation after another, permitting everybody their moment until liberation or exasperation is achieved. Still, if World arrives as Dolan’s most conventional drama, its quiet mastery suggests how much he’s learnt about performance, staging, even life. One sign of maturity, given this director’s previously gaudy tastes, is the decision to shoot in something close to natural light: a pall of melancholy hangs over this household that neither pleasantries nor pop songs can dispel. You can go home, clearly, but at 27, Dolan’s now old enough to intuit it may never be the same, or worse besides – that you might find it exactly the same.
It's Only the End of the World opens in selected cinemas from today.