We saw the new Xavier Dolan movie at Cannes

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The cast of Juste la Fin du Monde

The Cannes Film Festival is winding down, and the accompanying Cannes film market ends today. It is the largest and most important in the world for selling completed movies, funding films in progress and selecting pictures for film festivals worldwide. Canadians are represented by two pavilions: the national one, organized by Telefilm Canada and the Quebec one, set up by SODEC. Nine Quebec festivals had representatives at Cannes, including RIDM, Fantasia and Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, which threw an excellent cocktail party on Tuesday. Three of the four official selections at the festival and its side programs are Quebec films, including François Jaros’s short Oh What A Wonderful Feeling in the Critics’ Week, a prestigious parallel program established in 1962 that discovers films by first-time directors. Yesterday, I saw both Quebec full-length features selected for Cannes. One, Juste la Fin du Monde by Xavier Dolan, is competing for Palme d’Or.

Juste la Fin du Monde

Xavier Dolan’s melodrama disappoints. His films have been intense, witty and radiant, and infused with Quebec accents and contexts. Juste la Fin du Monde has none of that. The film features an ensemble of French stars and unbearable dialogue based on an acclaimed play by a French playwright. The former Dolan, of J’ai tué ma mére, Laurence Anyways and Mommy shines through in a few brief, colourful flashbacks — abbreviated music videos set to pop tunes — a kid washing a car with his father, a teen having sex with his first boyfriend. The rest of the film consists of close-ups of people talking, mostly at high volume, in grey, brown and black interiors.

Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a prize-winning gay playwright, comes back to his small town after staying away for 12 years to tell his family that he is dying. We wait and wait and wait for Louis to tell them, but he doesn’t say very much at all. His relatives never shut up, unleashing years worth of resentment at Louis and each other. His mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) gaudily dressed and heavily made-up, provides an unending commentary on family happenings. His older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) interrupts, ridicules and shuts people down. Antoine’s meek and stammering wife, who has never met Louis, can’t put a sentence together without correcting herself five times. His younger rebellious sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), who does not remember him, achieves moments of introspection, but mostly wallows in self-pity.

Their lines are not designed for humour or insight, but to reveal why the self-absorbed family members are oblivious to Louis’s condition. We never find out that he is dying of AIDS, a detail implicit in 1990 when the play was written, and when an HIV diagnosis meant a death sentence. The playwright, Jean-Luc Lagarce, died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 38. At the time, the characters’ artificially inane speech may have served as an appropriate metaphor for public ignorance of HIV patients’ plight. But Dolan is not interested in exploring this history. In one of his interviews he mentioned that he didn’t even like the play on first reading, and that he took on this movie while waiting for funding for his next, English-language Hollywood picture The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Perhaps Juste la Fin du Monde is just a stopover on the way to his more exciting and personal Hollywood project.

The Red Turtle

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As an antidote to all the jabber, I recommend seeing The Red Turtle, a melancholy dialogue-free full-length animated feature that screened in the Un Certain Regard program this week. Dutch-born, London-based animator Michael Dudok de Wit worked on this project for eight years, upon an invitation by Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese producers of Hayao Miyazaki’s and Isao Takahata’s films. De Wit is the only European animator to receive such an invitation. As the director’s first full-length film, it is a strong contender of Camera d’Or Prize at Cannes.

The story is original, created by de Wit, but feels like a timeless universal parable. A man is stranded on the deserted island with only tiny sand crabs for company. He tries to escape; three times, his makeshift bamboo raft falls apart — a large red turtle destroys it because it doesn’t want him to leave. His clumsy attempt at revenge turns the turtle into a woman, and the two start a family. Through all their tribulations, the couple never speak to each other or their son, and we never find out their names. Only facial expressions and music show their intentions and emotions.

De Wit consulted with Takahata throughout the process, and the final work is a blend of European and Japanese animation aesthetics. Every element in The Red Turtle — the unhurried pace, the simply drawn characters, the uncluttered island geography, the turtles and Laurent Perez Del Mar’s minimalist score — is designed to create a state of zen-like quiet contemplation. When the circle of the narrative completes, the feeling turns to profound sadness. I cannot recommend this film enough. For a taste of de Wit’s style, check out his Oscar-winning 2000 short Father and Daughter.  ■

See our previous Cannes report here.

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