Xavier Dolan returns to Cannes with a star-studded ensemble drama about a dysfunctional family. It’s all a bit flat.
Full disclosure: I am more of an ageing fangirl than a lucid-minded critic when it comes to the films of Xavier Dolan. His flair for emotional honesty results in films that pummel you into masochistically accepting the unbearable aspects of relationships. If this review is lukewarm, I am more than willing to accept that it is a result of my own obtuseness. That’s the hope at least.
This in-your-face family drama is adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s 1990 play about a man who comes home after a 12-year absence to tell his estranged family that he is dying from an unspecified terminal illness. Dolan is working with more of an ensemble dynamic than in his five previous films, each of which hinges on intense relationships between two or three people. The crème of French art-house glamour squeeze into the small house where the majority of the film is set. Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is the comparatively quiet retuning hero. His two siblings are Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) and Antoine (Vincent Cassel). He has a sister-in-law in the form of Antoine’s wife, Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Head of the family, the vampishly made-up Mother (Nathalie Baye) has some of the devil-may-care sass of Mommy’s Anne Dorval.
Events echo another 2016 Cannes competition film, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, for the sum total of the action is also family members sniping and bickering, at the cost of compassion and connecting. Apart from one gorgeous flashback to an early lover, this movie has none of the intoxicating colour-saturated style of Dolan’s 2010 Heartbeats. It’s a small drab apartment setting, and we come to learn that Louis’ siblings feel boxed-in, angry and insecure. This is not so believable. It’s a stretch to look at Seydoux, who radiates insouciant confidence, and believe that she needs any encouragement to be free. It seems as if Dolan is willing to cast A-listers who want to work with him, regardless of their suitability.
Faces are shot in extreme close-up and there’s not much for Louis to do except listen and try to exert gentle damage control as old resentments rise to the surface. There is some structural similarity to 2013’s Tom at the Farm in that the story is bookended by a man driving to and from an impossible emotional atmosphere. Of course, this being Dolan, the music choices are a combination of electronica and reclaimed chart toppers. They fill in for Louis’ state of mind in the absence of anyone to truly confide in.
What’s surprising about this film is the modesty of its ambition. Dolan isn’t trying to tell a ragged epic. This is a capsule displaying the everyday madness of family life. He doesn’t show any character in revealing detail. Each person is defined as a collection of surface anxieties that drive each other away. It’s a meltdown movie – both in subject and delivery – but the question is: is there anything more?
Dolan has already shown relationship strife welded around – in chronological order – a spiteful queer teenager, a love triangle, a man transitioning to become a woman, the aftermath of death, and a teenager with autism. Given this impressive roster of relationship-strife powered dramas, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this latest story– in which relationship strife is welded around nothing except itself – is a lesser work.
Published 20 May 2016
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