THE MOTHERS IN XAVIER DOLAN’S FILMS are jewel-like figures. More precisely, they tend to exhibit the same willful brilliance and studied caricature of the costume jewelry they so often don. Their earnest presentationalism — we watch them dry their glittery, sapphire-lacquered nails with a hairdryer; wait their turn in tanning salons; dot their I’s with hearts; prepare dishes drawn from magazines and out of books — is of a classic camp order, transfiguring them into overdone objects of adoration and occasioning their sons’ petulant, queenly ressentiment. They are driven and hardened by their self-stylizing rituals, which inevitably reveal themselves to be at once the product and cause of the lonely situations that we find them in. But these rituals are also strategies of self-care, exhibiting an amour-propre akin to their love for their children, which they explicitly characterize as existing independent of any real understanding of them. These mothers, always seen as remarkable and frustrating creative forces, may be thought of as Dolan’s signatures, and they even seem to stand for his wider ambitions and aesthetic inclinations as a filmmaker. It should hardly surprise us, then, that it is the mother in his latest film, It’s Only the End of the World, who asks its most important question: “Who is the author?”
The film is an adaptation of a 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce. The story centers on Louis, a successful, gay writer, who returns home to his family after 12 years away to tell them that he is dying. Played with a graceful indolence by Gaspard Ulliel, Louis is now 34 years old, and, in spite of his apparently successful career as a writer, he remains a taciturn man of two to three word answers. His departure was abrupt, and his absence from his family has been all but absolute, save for his diligent, if glib, sending of postcards to mark important occasions. If the family’s rupture was caused by Louis’s decisive flight, all of its members have since deemed his leaving incomprehensible and have suffered from a binding immobility as a result.
In its adapted form, the story advances steadily, with the exception of a few oneiric flashbacks, toward the consistently withheld revelation of Louis’s illness. At times, this narrative progression is subsumed by an overriding feeling of suspense, one occasioned by everyone’s anxiety over the cause of Louis’s return and felt even more strongly by the glowing intensities of the ongoing heat wave. One of the principal transformations of Dolan’s adaptation is the refocalizing of this nervous crescendo, so that it now encompasses all of the characters more consistently rather than its more acute advancement into the fraught relations between Louis and his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) in Lagarce’s script.
In spite of this diffusion of dialogue, the film’s trajectory is in fact much tauter than the play’s, and Dolan wields his medium so as to refuse the possibility that suspense should at any moment slacken. To this end, he keys up sensation in fabulously descriptive and specifically filmic way. He repeatedly features close-ups of skin, so that the prickle of goose bumps along the nape of a neck during the main course of a meal yields to a sweaty glimmer during the dessert — but not without a 30 to 40 minute caesura in narrative time. Dolan extends this interest in the surface of filmed things to an engagement with film’s surface. Partial views are offered between closely shot cracks of plane seats and slightly ajar doors; swaying curtains and obliquely opened blinds rescreen narrative incident as so many fragmented views; and rapid shifts in depth of field and foggy windows lock action even further away from the viewer as crisp tufts of grass or a hand print of a secret lover inscribe the newly opaque and implacably flat screen space. Such aesthetic attentiveness (or are they distractions?) opens onto pleasures far removed from the story at hand. What could be more enigmatic and utterly gratuitous, for instance, than those two drifting red balloons pictured at upper left of a shot internally framed by the rear window of Louis’s taxi? To have missed them is to have probably spotted another, clearly intended, yet largely frivolous detail to mull over.
All of these edits emphasize just how much It’s Only the End of the World has been reconceived by Dolan’s own auteurist procedures, but one shouldn’t consider them as so many departures from the original. At least not exactly. Instead, they are examples of Dolan’s own self-implicating return to his source — just like those enacted by Lagarce and by Louis within his play. For if the original story is ostensibly about Louis’s own self-narration, it ends up being much more about his various self-replications in the minds of others. The author is written and rewritten by his intended audience. The first to rewrite Louis is Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard), who tells Louis that her first son, his nephew, bears his name. This is a perversion of her family’s schema of nominal inheritance due to Antoine’s refusal to name the child after himself. Though linked to tales of sacred kingship (we are made to think of those many French King Louis), the narrative order here is perhaps more mythical or biblical, with Antoine’s self-repudiating disinheritance of his son as a Kronos-like repetition of the presumed, but unstated betrayal by Louis (upon coming out to their father).
Then, Louis’s younger sister, played by Léa Seydoux, tries to reconstruct Louis, a brother she never really knew, right in front of him from salvaged press clippings and archives of received postcards. We might describe her forensic drive as something akin to fannish melancholia, since it depends on, as her stated disappointment in the medium of postcards makes clear, only outward, publicly available accounts of his life. Having described his writing talent as a gift, her investigative sleuthing is nevertheless inflected with Christological or Zola-esque hereditary symbolism (the oft-repeated French word don is particularly evocative in this regard). His mother Martine (Nathalie Baye), who describes the various motivations of Louis’s siblings and enjoins him to extend invitations to them (he will ultimately oblige and do just that and, unlike the play, with more ambiguous sincerity), maintains a psychological omniscience over all of the family members but Louis. She can’t locate him; he is literally not even addressable to her. Instead, she turns her son into a typology of his father, telling him that he now possesses his forebear’s eyes.
Finally, Antoine’s impassioned speech in the film’s interminable car ride reveals him to be a distrustful, paranoiac reader/listener. He is also a capable practitioner of pastiche, one who eventually restates/rewrites Louis’s account of his journey home until it arrives at its degree zero, willfully devoid of meaningful content and now with no audience. On top of all of these refracted iterations of Louis’s narrative are his own flashbacks, which, as sensuous, mnemonic responses to affectively charged surfaces like his childhood mattress, seem to introduce his unconscious as another externalized, inassimilable narrator attempting to process the early moments of homosocial and homosexual intimacy that he is now forced to reconcile with or, belatedly, to mourn.
In his final withholding of his original motivations for returning, Louis accedes to his family, or at least abdicates the exclusive privilege to narrate his life to them. He turns away from justifying his travels as a self-defining death drive (well, flight). It is a false climax (there is no revelation, and Antoine stops just short of physical violence) presented as an ethical ideal — a realization that our returns are never and maybe should never be as punctual as we might have intended them to be; that we are responsible for our many dispatches; and that those we return to may not be those we left, or, if they are, that they may also retain the right to have their say.
To this latter point, it is necessary to stress how often the characters dispute each other’s rights to act or make claims on another’s behalf, how difficult it is for them to find the mot juste. Throughout the film, Louis’s family members find themselves silenced, interrupted, belittled, parroted, and contradicted in their attempts to formulate some meaningful mode of relating after his extended absence. They fumble with a strained formality, such as when Catherine stutters undecidedly between vous and tu or with Louis’s cool designation of his mother as Martine. The closest experience of calm arrives with Louis’s most prolix speech, but even this instantaneously unravels as he confesses that he won’t stay the night.
The excesses of passion, generosity, personal responsibility, resentment, and despair exhibited throughout the vitiating confusion in these final moments seem to crystallize the very form of love most often exhibited by Dolan’s mothers. This is a love unmoored from understanding and propelled by deeper convictions or perhaps even non-cognitive commitments to others. Louis’s final glance at his mother reveals nothing but her arm, seen through a window and wielding a cigarette, a purely private pleasure that she indulges in, only to mask the smell from Antoine with a perfume she gifted herself.
Of course, not all of the characters are allowed such personal autonomy. The film’s final scene confirms what many viewers will have already suspected — that despite Louis’s role as protagonist and our knowledge of his inevitable death, it may be Catherine who is the film’s truly tragic figure. Early on, as she tells Louis of his nieces and nephews in fits and starts (due to Antoine’s frequent interruptions), there is an unspoken recognition that she understands why Louis has returned. Of this, we are given only clues but no explicit confirmation. For instance, all three of the film’s female leads wear garishly applied eyeshadows of cobalt, bronze, and lavender, all of which contrast with the dull hollows of Louis’s lids — one of the clearest signs offered that he is indeed ill. In a shot-reverse-shot sequence conducted at extreme close-up between Catherine and Louis, Catherine’s face tenses and her slightly parted lips close as she examines his face. Later on, her ambiguous and hesitant question to Louis — “How long?” — seems to require an answer that he is as yet unprepared to give, and she herself holds back from clarifying what she may really mean. We are even allowed to believe that her recognition is not just nervous suspicion but something closer to the burdens of divine wisdom, since she is mock-sainted by her husband for her compassion. And couldn’t we describe her role in handing over a christened glass of wine (with a small crystal bauble around its stem) or relaying information about Antoine to Louis as intercessory, or at least as mediumistic? Even still, Louis’s final gesture to her to keep silent allows him to regain an authorial function through her sacrifice, a shattering submission to his (non)word here played out in one of Marion Cotillard’s finest moments as an actress.
Consistent with certain of his previous films, It’s Only the End of the World represents Dolan’s return to a universe in which relations remain haunted by an absent father. For Dolan’s protagonists, such an experience leads to a promiscuous drift. Jewel-like mothers often bear the weight of these young men’s queer divagations. But in this case, we discover that Louis’s family members have also reconfigured, abandoned, transgressed, and repeated the order that the father is held to represent. Louis’s Apollonian flight, though at the time potentially lifesaving, may have depended on an even more unflinching faith in the symbolic order he had once felt excluded from since, in refusing to return, he had unwittingly preserved it with an unyielding sameness. What is called for, and what his promises to return and to write with greater frequency seem to imply, may be the abandonment of his earlier project of autochthonous self-making. Instead, he must find new ways of relating to others, which turns out to be refinding old ways of doing so.
Surely, we find something of this queered model of paternity in Dolan’s own adaptation. For his return to Lagarce is also a return to an earlier moment in the ongoing AIDS crisis, that other specter haunting the film’s narrative and that yawning gap separating the two authors from one another. As Ryan Murphy’s unseemly adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart made clear, there is nothing intrinsically valuable in such historical returns, especially if all that we retrieve from the past is its voluble mediocrity. However, like Catherine and Antoine’s baby names, Dolan’s return to Lagarce involves a creative genealogical sliding. Perhaps instead of creative forefathers, we discover a kind of inheritance decoupled from traditional rights of paternity, and relieve the status of being a son from its agonistic struggles for adequation. And maybe in finding repetitions of our own mothers in these new filial lines, we decide that we also hear our own self-consciously cool soundtracks overlaying another’s dialogue, and then we start to make changes that are entirely of and specific to our own devices. “Who is the author?” matters most for It’s Only the End of the World because in spite of the plurality of voices, Dolan never allows them to collapse into the undecidability implied by our received notions of the death of the author. Its characters (and its adapter) decide, but not always with complete success, that their creative enterprises can still be their own if they are also at the same time felt to be another’s. Louis’s return was always to be his departure. Xavier’s too.