Where the Ghosts Meet

Film review: Juste la fin du monde (Director: Xavier Dolan)

By Sascha Krieger

No, this is not a happy return home. „Home is where it hurts“ is what the opening song tells us while Louis, a successful writer in his thirties looks through the windows of his taxi encountering suspicious, distrustful, hostile glances aimed at him. A reception that foreshadows his return to the first meeting with his family in ten years. His brother is downright hostile, his mother overbearing, his younger sister desparate and full of reproaches. They refuse to talk or listen or don’t dare stop talking fearing what they might hear if they did or focus so much on their own needs to have forgotten that conversation ins a two-way street. In all of this, the writer, the master of words is mostly silence. Leaving his world (which we never see), the one he has created to live and love and  breathe in, he is thrown back into one in which he has no voice, is left speechless and bereft of the ability connect. His pained smile, his suffering, gaunt face (Gaspard Ulliel memorably plays this lost soul), cries out, screams but isn’t heard. The viewer knows he is dying and has come to tell his family but they will never know because they cannot see, hear, accept that there is someone other than themselves.

Image: © Shayne Laverdière, Sons of Manual

Image: © Shayne Laverdière, Sons of Manual

Xavier Dolan’s way of telling this story is relentless and downright brutal. The entire film consists of little more than close-ups. Hardened, suffering, facade-like, desperate faces who fail to communicate with each other. Group shots are rare, mostly there is one character filling the frame, islands with no connection to the others. If two faces appear at the same time one is in focus and the other one blurred. These characters are so entrenched in their own regrets, longings, resignation, frustration that they cannot leave their shells that they cannot or will not open up to those around them. Their only ways of communicating are monologues shutting out the other or increasingly violent arguments and fights. If the other is recognized it is as an enemy. Facades, appearances must be kept up, weakness avoided even when the surface crumbles.

Xavier Dolan is an uncompromising film maker, when he dives down into dysfunctional families, into secrets, lies and the manifold ways people find to hurt each other, he goes where it hurts and starts digging deeper. In this sense, Juste la fin du monde may well be his most radical film yet. There is little relief, the tension builds up and is never broken but constantly intensified for more than ninety minutes. If there is laughter, it’s of the bitter, sarcastic variety. If there is a beam of light, as in Marion Cotillard’s Catherine, Louis‘ sister-in-law, who speaks and listens, who tries to understand, to mitigate, to connect and who in a sequence of wordless exchanges of looks finds out Louis‘ secret, offering a connection which he, being his mother’s son and his brother’s brother cannot quite accept. He will not tell his secret. When he finally finds his voice it is a false one, telling lies everyone knows are lies but will cling on to regardless. Flashbacks in soft light, often accompanied by way too loud, aggressively dominant, frequently overdone or completely out of place music adding an extra level of bitter irony („Dragostea din tei“ as the soundtrack of childhood memories!), are painful memories, happy days mostly, but not offering any resolution, any peace, because the happiness has been thoroughly destroyed long ago.

And so the world is grey. That it’s the middle of a scorching summer is revealed mostly through the swat on people’s, especially Louis’s faces as he moves from one what is basically an interrogation to the next, losing words, facial expressions, any strength he had along the way. In a dark, claustrophobic miniature world of robots he becomes a ghost. It is only at the very end that light enters, a warm, bright, summer evening light, completely over the top, of course. But it is not the light of knowledge, of catharsis, of happiness but the light of false illusions, pointless fantasies and lies, a fairy-tale light denying reality. Then Moby’s „natural Blues“ wails, credits roll and the end has come. For one ghost while the others go on. Each on their own lost way, deeper and deeper into their unbreakable shells. An unwilling conglomerate of the undead. Or as some call it: family.

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