Dir. Xavier Dolan. Can-Fr. 2016. 97mins

its only the end of the world

It seems only fitting that Xavier Dolan, the fêted prodigy of the arthouse film world, should choose as his latest project an adaptation of a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, the French actor, director and playwright who formed his own theatre company aged just 21, and had completed 25 plays by the time he died of AIDS in 1995 while still in his thirties. Now at the ripe old age of 27, Dolan returns to Cannes Competition with sixth feature It’s Only the End of the World, arriving two years after Mommy shared the Jury Prize. Lagarce’s intense family drama feels thematically consistent with much of the French Canadian’s existing work, although the dynamic this time feels more conventional.

The film’s dialogue has ample tang of real family discourse, but it often fails to rivet.

Despite consummate filmmaking skill, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is minor Dolan: an inter-course palate cleanser between the giddy, audacious Mommy and his upcoming starry English language debut The Death and Life of John F Donovan.

An opening caption tells us that the events we are about to witness occurred “somewhere, a while ago already”, suggesting a tone of mischief that turns out, after an hour and a half of family reunion, to be rather a miscue. Successful gay playwright Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) has flown home to see his nearest relatives after 12 years of self-imposed exile. Louis’ voiceover informs us that he is doing so to tell them the news that he is about to die.

Most excited to greet Louis are his high-spirited, funkily attired mother (Nathalie Baye, reuniting with Dolan after Laurence Anyways) and younger sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), the tattooed rebel of the family. Elder brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel – at 49, perhaps a little old for this role) resents the fuss being made over the return of the family’s celebrity prodigal. But his constant undermining of his wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard) suggests that his issues go deeper, and he’s revealed to be an insecure bully with a nasty habit of repeating everyone’s words in a mocking accent.

Ensemble scenes are interspersed with a succession of conversations between Louis and a single family member, typically framed in tight, claustrophobic shots with cinematographer André Turpin’s saturated inky tones. Directorial flourishes include inter-scene pauses, free of dialogue, and with the volume of Gabriel Yared’s score turned up, as the camera contemplates Louis’ face – a filmic corollary, perhaps, of the original play’s scene changes.

Dolan’s authorial stamp is felt most vividly when Louis investigates a storage room containing his own possessions, and a flashback brings a moment of adolescent sexual discovery thrillingly to life. Soundtrack cuts have Dolan’s refreshingly anti-cool fingerprints all over them, from Blink 182 to Moby and horrifyingly catchy, defiantly cheesy 2004 Euro disco hit Dragostea Din Tei by O-Zone.

The film’s dialogue has ample tang of real family discourse, but it often fails to rivet. There’s pain, to be sure, watching Catherine stumble through a seemingly endless explanation of why she and her husband named their own son Louis, while Antoine snipes from the sidelines, but there’s also a dullness here. Although there is scant development and mere gestures towards a story, tensions do bubble over in a final scene, which probably needs a live stage performance to reveal its full dramatic potential.

Louis, his mother chides him, is a man who refuses to give himself, sitting there smiling at them and saying just three words. It’s a fair criticism, and it takes all of Ulliel’s striking presence to hold the film’s centre. It’s a delicate balancing act for both actor and director, investigating tricky source material that, on the evidence of this film, fails to penetrate the enigma of its most intriguing character.

Production companies: Sons Of Manual, MK Productions

International sales: Seville International, anickp@filmsseville.com

Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Xavier Dolan, Nancy Grant, Nathanaël Karmitz, Michel Merkt

Screenplay: Xavier Dolan, based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce

Cinematography: André Turpin

Editor: Xavier Dolan

Production design: Colombe Raby

Music: Gabriel Yared

Main cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye