Throughout his accelerated career, Xavier Dolan has proven himself to be peculiarly adept at fusing visions of queerness with visions of morbidity and mortality. From his debut, I Killed My Mother, through to his adaptation of Tom at the Farm, his films have all contemplated characters whose queerness brings them to the brink of death, destruction and self-annihilation. For that reason his films often feel as if they are indebted to the structures of feeling and queer identity politics of the AIDS crisis, even if they have not actually been about AIDS, at least not up until this point. With his latest project, however, Dolan starts to bring some of these tendencies to the surface – an adaptation of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s Juste la Fin du Monde, one of the most canonical texts written through and about AIDS, if also (somewhat appropriately) one of the most belatedly discovered and celebrated. Written by Lagarce as he was facing his own imminent death from AIDS, the play, released in 1990, was one of his final works, culminating a career that initially drew heavily from Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, but which, by this late stage, had fashioned itself into a schismatic surrealism all of its own, even if Lagarce wasn’t necessarily recognised for it at the time.
In that sense, It’s Only the End of the World forms part of an ongoing critical rediscovery and renaissance around Lagarce’s works, which were infrequently performed in his own lifetime. In part that’s because of how they stretched and challenged the boundaries of theatre, an experimental tendency that finds its logical conclusion in Juste la Fin du Monde. Insofar as this play – if it can be called that – has a narrative, it revolves around a young man returning to his home in the country after many years to tell his family that he is dying of AIDS. In the original version, however, this visit is very brief, with the bulk of the play consisting of a series of monologues from different members of the family that gradually devolve into an abstract set of exchanges and miscommunications on the stage. These monologues are deliberately contradictory, fragmented and incoherent, littered with grammatical errors, interminable repetitions and elliptical allusions that the characters try and fail to edit as they go along, as if searching for a language commensurate to the radical alterity of this central conjunction of queerness and death.
As if that weren’t disorienting enough, the timeframe of the play is also quite incoherent, with the stage directions dictating that the events occur on a single day but the monologues appearing to evolve over the course of an entire year – a situation that Dolan addresses by setting his adaptation within the vague and amorphous space of “somewhere, a while ago already.” As this timeframe distends, the dialogue becomes more abstract, with characters talking to themselves and each other all at once, removing any semblance of either naturalistic dialogue or monologue and instead evoking a cacophony of competing voices in which each figure is nevertheless shrouded, suffocated and stultified by the silence of thwarted communication. Not surprisingly, then, Juste la Fin du Monde has always posed considerable conceptual challenges to directors and actors, with Marion Cotillard reflecting that her part in the film version consisted largely of “aborted sentences and redundancies,” a “flood of incoherencies” that required her to utterly change her preconceptions of what a dramatic monologue entailed: “At first I was terrified by my text and then I understood that her monologues were like the sound of silence”.
Of course, this kind of fragmented theatrical text poses considerable formal challenges for a cinematic adaptation as well, especially because it feels somewhat open-ended and incomplete as a work of theatre, almost enjoining cinema (or some other medium) to complete it and provide closure. To some extent, the exigencies of a fictional film mean that Dolan has to introduce more coherence, which means centring the story on the protagonist’s return home, and trying to include the monologues – which occur after his departure in the play – during his actual visit. On the surface, then, we have something resembling a traditional story, with gay playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) visiting his family in a French industrial town in order to tell them that he is dying. All the action takes place in the family house, and is confined to the key members of the family – Louis’ mother Martine (Nathalie Baye), sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux), brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) and brother’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard), who he is meeting for the first time. That’s a pretty venerable cast of French actors, which is perhaps why it initially feels as if this is going to be a straightforward chamber drama, or a theatrical adaptation in which there is some semblance of a conventional or traditional theatrical experience.
From the very outset, however, it’s clear that Dolan has made an effort to internalise Lagarce’s incoherencies within his mise-en-scenes in ways that make for possibly an even more disorienting experience than the original play. First and foremost, Dolan shoots virtually the entire film in close-up, blurring the foreground with a person or object on the rare occasions that we’re allowed the breathing space of a mid-distance perspective. At the same time, there is nearly always music playing in the background, seeping in and out of the diegesis and shifting jarringly from one style to another, as if to suggest some enormous, subliminal cacophony that is right on the verge of forcing its way to the surface. Most immediately, that works perfectly to capture all the shifting associations and incoherent memories that emerge when returning to a family space for the first time in years, while Dolan’s love for cheesy 90s pop (or cheesy 90s-sounding pop) gives a good sense of the amount of time that has passed since Louis was last at home, as well as the last sounds and songs he internalised before leaving for Paris and starting his theatrical career. Here, as in Mommy, 90s pop is inextricable from 90s music video, with the film often feeling as if it is on the verge of spinning out into a series of semi-independent music videos as well, as Louis follows his various memories and associations through to their disparate and obscured origins without ever arriving at any concrete or defining recollection either.
At a more general level, however, there’s something inherently disjunctive about sound and image in music video that works naturally alongside Lagarce’s schismatic style of dialogue. Throughout his career, Dolan’s films have moved closer and closer to this disjunctive potential, with Mommy, in particular, featuring several standalone sequences in which Dolan dissociated visual and musical cues to create tableaux of staggering hallucinatory intensity. Here that tendency is taken even further, with the action cutting away for fullblown music videos (or music video fragments) at key moments and even the non-musical sequences taking on something of the schizoid logic of music video more generally. Watching these sequences, I was reminded of the iconic “Wonderwall” sequence in Mommy, which marked the point at which Dolan moved from Instagram framing to something more like traditional cinematic framing, only to shrink the screen once again at the end of the song. Here, most exchanges and conversations revolve around a similar sense of expansion and contraction, except that the contraction comes much quicker and feels much more inevitable, even if it also intensifies the romance of the expansion at the same time (the most beautiful musical sequence describes Louis’ memory of his first love, who turns out to have died from cancer the previous week).
Given that music videos are inherently climactic – or have to climax within minutes – it’s perhaps not surprising that It’s Only the End of the World feels as if it is ending from the very beginning, with the opening credits feeling more like closing credits in their upbeat, wistful sense of catharsis and resilience. As a result, even the quiet, reflective conversations are unable to anchor themselves in any kind of real forward momentum or narrative teleology, and are instead cast adrift within a sea of reflections and associations that are increasingly difficult to follow. At one point or another, Louis has a long exchange with each family member, and yet the import and final destinations of all these conversations remain profoundly elusive, partly because there is so much that remains unspoken and unarticulated about the family history itself (we never find out, for example, what happened to his father, or if there ever was a father). Culminating in a terrific exchange with Vincent Cassel that takes place in a car, these conversations all split the difference between dialogue and monologue, and form something like Dolan’s stylistic solution to the more abstracted second half of Lagarce’s play, generalising the principle of music video into a more general disjunction between sound and appearance, as the characters continually try to anchor free-floating and anarchic facial expressions and verbal fragments into a coherent and stabilising whole. Never quite talking to themselves nor to each other, the characters inhabit these exchanges only because they can’t escape them, producing a quietly catastrophic sense of closure and constriction that nearly always feels like a particularly disorienting music video, even if it doesn’t always look and sound like one.
Given that this power is founded on a certain cultivated incoherence, it’s only natural that Dolan’s film has been slammed for being preposterous and melodramatic. Yet, as I mentioned in my recent review of Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, I tend to feel that representations of queer mortality diverge so drastically from how death is normally (and normatively) conceptualised that they can’t really be anything but messy and anarchic, at least within this kind of family narrative. Focusing on the cognitive dissonance and sheer unrepresentability of queer death, Lagarce’s play figures AIDS as a schism in meaning and representation, inflected through the absurdism of Beckett and Ionesco, and Dolan follows suit, using his acceptance of the Grand Prix at Cannes as an opportunity to reiterate his determination to follow Anatole France in preferring “the madness of passion to the wisdom of indifference.” Whether he is converging music video and film as a way of approaching the abstracted mnemonics of Lagarce’s vision, or splitting the difference between dialogue and monologue so as to preclude any clearcut distinction between cinematic and theatrical language, there’s a studied schismatic quality here that seems almost designed to thwart attachment to the film and its characters as a whole.
In other words, It’s Only the End of the World is deliberately incoherent in terms of narrative, characterisation and timeframe, to the point where Dolan himself has admitted to not really understanding or connecting with the original play (at least as a script) until he had read it several times. In that sense, it’s possibly a more experimental film than Mommy – certainly a more grating and difficult film – and quite brave in its willingness to alienate the fan base that had clustered around Dolan’s earlier films. In its equation of queerness with terminal illness – or its presentation of queerness as a terminal illness, a condition whose burden becomes clearest around death – it’s also bracingly uncompromising in its identity politics. At a time when queerness often seems to be assimilated or on the verge of being fully assimilated, Dolan seems to be reminding us that the structures of feeling and experience around AIDS never really went away, even if AIDS itself is no longer the epidemiological crisis that it once was. It feels apt, then, that we never find out whether Louis is dying of AIDS or of some other condition – he never tells his family -since it affirms that some things around queerness still can’t or won’t be said in liberal popular discourse, even if it takes the prospect of death to draw out those tacit refusals on the part of the “indifferently wise.”
There’s something strangely compelling, then, about the final scenes, in which Louis assures his family – somewhat unconvincingly – that he will return to see them soon. As they all struggle to convince him, in turn, that they have accepted him, his isolation simply seems to intensify, creating the sense of something utterly incommensurable about his queerness, something that refuses, despite all his best efforts, to assimilate or compromise. It’s a radically antisocial version of queerness in the best way, and part and parcel of the film’s circular structure, in which “the day started as it ended – without obligation, without intentions.” Suffused with a difference, displacement and dislocation that simply can’t or won’t be articulated within society as we know it, Louis is relegated to the past the moment he leaves the family’s hearth – or has been relegated there already, despite their best intentions. Yet Dolan also lights upon the past as the best approximation for this world so utterly unlike the present – “somewhere, a while ago already” – even as he avoids nostalgia or retrogression at the same time, making for a film that is certainly more fragmented but also more accomplished, in its own way, than Mommy.