Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard
Length: 1hr 37m
It is safe to say that Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan has not been given the easiest of rides with his new film. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival a room full of critics greeted the news that Dolan had won the Grand Prix with a chorus of boos. It has been talked about as a pretty much insufferable experience. It has a 44% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is hardly likely to become a crowd-pleasing box-office smash either. I respectfully disagree with the world’s consensus. Dolan has created an absorbing and at times thrilling film that is by no means perfect but deserves a lot more love than it’s been getting.
Based on a Jean-Luc Lagarce play, the film’s theatrical origins are clear from its set-up. Gaspard Ulliel plays Louis, a successful playwright who returns home having not seen his family in over a decade, a decade which has seen his younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) grow from girl to woman, his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) marry a woman Louis has never met (Marion Cotillard), and resentment levels towards him bubble significantly throughout the family. The tension is upped significantly, however, by the fact Louis is returning to tell his family that he is dying from an AIDS-related illness.
The next 90 minutes are heavy with the enormous emotional crisis Louis is having to confront, or rather, not confront. He delays and delays and delays, as does the catharsis that an audience might expect. This continual building of tension and layer upon layer of personal strife is unpalatable for some but works extremely effectively in highlighting the turmoil at this family’s centre. The malicious sniping between Suzanne and Nathalie Baye’s matriarch as well as Antoine’s constant grumbling and aggression mean that the nice family dynamic Louis may have hoped for is, unsurprisingly, pretty much non-existent.
It is understandable why some people find Dolan’s film irritating. There is virtually no escape from the noise, whether that be the bickering of the family or the thumping pop music Dolan uses to accompany his flashbacks. It is also true that the repeated use of close-ups makes for uncomfortable, claustrophobic viewing. Being unable to see the expressions of more than one character at a time make it feel like the drama is being curtailed somewhat, but this frustrating lack of clarity is perhaps just what Dolan was going for. The arguments never reach resolutions and we often feel that they’re not intended to; in Antoine’s case in particular, he’s just looking for a fight. This is a film about the poisonous entity of the family, the bizarre paradoxes of hatred and close bonds it creates. The rather less than smooth approach is a key part of showing this.
When taking this approach, the performances need to be excellent to sustain the amount of dialogue and close-up involved. The whole cast does a great job of keeping the film going, with Seydoux and Cassel performing particularly well, stopping their shouty roles from becoming tiresome. Antoine’s transformation from cynical comic character to furious whirlwind is invested with raw emotion by Cassel, helping the film to surprisingly morph into a story most focussed on the relationship between two brothers.
What is also surprising is how funny it can be. Far too much has been made of the nastiness, the close-ups, and the nightmarishness of the film. Whilst the verbal cruelty is the predominant feature, there is a lot of humour in Dolan’s script, providing the crucial levity that makes the style work. We see the family in harmony for small snatches of the run-time, twisting the hate-fest into something more nuanced, about the way time and distance can have a corrosive effect on relationships. Suzanne gives the constant vibe that she envies the talent that allowed Louis to escape their mad-house of a home, whilst Louis’ guilt must surely build as he realises that he, in his absence, return, and success, is the catalyst for the hatred.
For a large stretch it does feels like there’s not that much going on in the shouting; we wish for deeper probes into the characters and instead get something a bit more predictable and less dramatically satisfying, such as the shocking revelation that Suzanne missed her bother when growing up. But as the tension builds and Louis’ decision about revealing his dark secret looms closer, the film becomes utterly absorbing, breath-taking melodrama. The last 10-15 minutes are sensational, the bitterness and pent-up aggression building to almost unbearable levels while the depths of the characters’ emotions spill over, leaving you shaken and exhausted by the dramatic time-bomb ticking ever more furiously as the film nears its conclusion.
It may well not be perfect: the artiness may sometimes be a bit too overt, reaching for profundity and producing something rather more empty; there might be a few too many lingering shots of Ulliel looking physically and emotionally exhausted; the close-up shots may get a bit repetitive; the bird symbolism at the end might not really add much. But this is a film which is alive. It crackles with the energy of the actors, it pulls us in and doesn’t let go, and Dolan doesn’t hold back in the approach he takes. It is a film to be loved, hated and debated, a film that should be seen by any fan of cinema if only to be able to have your own opinion on it.
Dolan doesn’t seem to do middling – to quote the man himself (quoting Anatole France) after his Cannes triumph: “Je préfère la folie des passions à la sagesse de l’indifférence.” – “I prefer the madness of the emotions to the wisdom of indifference.”