Being family and not being bound at the same time, seems to be conflicting with family values that are still deeply rooted in society. Or are they not? Who has not seen, or experienced personally, how family members gave up on each other? Is that bad? Or just another fact of life to be easily accepted? Should we maintain family bonds to every expense? Or is to have warm, friendly and profound loving bonds with your next of kin just a matter of chance? Bad, or even ‘imperfect’ – and who knows what perfect is in this respect – family ties are a struggle for many of us, I think that much is safe to assume. We choose our friends after all, but relatives … aren’t they just thrown blindly as pebbles in the smooth surface of the pristine pond of our lives?
In Juste la fin du monde (It’s only the end of the world) famous but modest play-writer Louis (performed by Gaspard Ulliel) returns home to his family of origin with the intention to announce his imminent death, as he has turned terminally ill. This after not being in touch – regularly sent postcards excluded – at all with his family for twelve years. His youngest sister (Suzanne, by Léa Seydoux), ten years of age when Louis left has turned into a rebellious sister he hardly recognizes. She appears to have missed her brother dearly, perhaps hoping on more stability from Louis than the other and older brother Antoine (in an impressive performance of Vincent Cassel), with his recurrent tantrums, can ever give her, or anyone else for that matter.
Antoine seems only angry with his brother’s absence and he receives Louis’s sudden return with mixed feelings of resent and incomprehension – why return now, after all these years of not showing up – and fear as he seems to guess that only bad news could have brought his brother back. The as whimsical as colorful mother (by Nathalie Baye) seems to understand little of the return of her darling son but embraces him with love and finally fulfilled longing. Sister-in-law Catharine (Marion Cotillard) appears to be the only one who is willing to make an effort to welcome the man she barely knows openheartedly, be it that she is not able to express her sentiments very well.
Canadian director and screenwriter Xavier Dolan (born 1989 and celebrated for the slightly hysterical Les amours imaginaires and the both tragic, funny and warm Mommy, to name just two of his already extensive body of work) managed to adapt this play (written by Jean-Luc Lagarce) for the silver screen very well. The good observer will see all that is left unspoken, all that is behind the emotions to which each individual family member, Louis most of them all, falls prey. But, yes, one has to look very closely for that. Dolan does not give away much and apparently wanting more clarity the movie incited the American (American meaning US, as the Canadian press received Dolan’s latest screenplay warmly) critics as ‘cold’ and ‘deeply unsatisfying’, referring to too much that would have remained unsaid and unexplained. For reasons unclear to me, those critics missed what was acted out – mostly in between dialogues – under the surface of all the commotion in which the family gathering more than once resulted.
The internal struggle revolving around Louis’s initial intention to break the bad news to his family is the central conflict of the story and performed just great by Gaspard Ulliel. Doing this he demonstrates some superb examples of silent acting. The inability of the other family members to understand Louis truly is another but no less important conflict. Family is said to be bound by blood, but this family’s bonds are disrupted by an immensely sad incapacity to truly understand each other. Especially Louis and his having an artist’s view on life escapes every possible comprehension of the nest he broke free from so rigorously, but maybe understandably, in the past. Vincent Cassel demonstrates convincingly the heartbreaking pain of older brother Antoine that results from sensing what is in the air constantly, wanting to understand his brother and not being able to do so. He has no other option than just being furious about both Louis’s sudden arrival and his unexplained departure so many years ago. Antoine just does not know, has not been taught properly how to love, how to care about, how to understand the one who was been put into his life and who chose to be alone with his creative talents.
The directions and screenplay of Dolan, the great performance of all actors, the beautiful camera work of André Turpin, it all excels brilliantly in this joint display of what it means on an emotional level to be family and to deeply not understand each other to the extent of being in fact disconnected. However, through all the sorrow that is the result of this, still shines the love they feel or at least would want to feel for each other. A wonderful movie, for those who dare to recognize the pains of being family.
Film stills: Cinemien, The Netherlands
Trailer: MK2, sons of manual