It’s only the end of the world, directed by Xavier Dolan, Canada, France 2016.
In UK cinemas from 24th February 2017
Reviewed by Dr Franco Ferrarini
Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is a 34-year-old gay playwright who feels an urgent need to meet his family after 12 years of estrangement, to tell them about his terminal illness and impending death. Unfortunately, instead of the help and compassion he is looking for, he is met by a climate of anger, violence and indifference; his sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) blames him for not taking her away from the family home, his brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel), the man with bruised knuckles, envies and resents his success, and his mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) keeps cooking huge amounts of food, in a futile attempt to keep her dysfunctional family together. The only person who shows empathy towards Louis, the lack of which lingers over the whole narration, is his sister-in-law Catherine (Marion Cotillard in an outstanding performance), a sensitive and shy woman who is clearly oppressed by her husband Antoine. Catherine and Louis exchange silent glances as their own means of communication, and sharing of each other’s emotions in a way words could not provide. Apart from Catherine, the rest of the family do not understand, or even try to understand Louis’s tragedy. The narrative goes on with the cuckoo-clock watching over Louis reminding him that he is running out of time. The recollection of past moments in flashbacks provides a flicker of light in this otherwise dark homecoming day.
Adapted from the 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce “Just la fin du monde”, Xavier Dolan’s film is mainly based on close-ups and dialogues and virtually no action. The story-telling style reminds us of Gille Deleuze’s ‘time-image theory’ where we can appreciate the flow of time either directly, without the intermediary of motion (time–image) by means of dialogues, monologues, flashbacks or memories, or indirectly, by observing the motion of objects or people (motion-image) (1).
The theme of lack of communication is at the film’s heart, a common finding in many modern families (Camille’s song “Home is Where it Hurts” (played in the soundtrack seems particularly appropriate). In our ever-connected society everybody is, so to say, friends with people whom he’ll never meet and ‘will never be there for’ (2). Virtual ‘Face book friends’ are not there when they are truly needed, they cannot listen or help in times of trouble. It seems that today’s society is very similar to Louis’s family, where everyone is self-centered, and the presence of others can be an annoyance to everybody’s shouted solipsism, a cause of envy and subsequent rage.
The lack of empathy shown by Louis’s relatives, and Catherine’s inability to use words to express her feelings, are two issues that are particularly relevant to physicians. The metaphor in the film reminds us that we need to sharpen our skills in empathy; if we just sit back and listen idly to what our patients say we might miss vital information about their diagnosis, but more importantly we might miss a lot about the patient herself/himself. We might understand which kind of disease the patient has, but certainly not connect with the patient who has a certain disease. A clinical behaviour based on true empathy helps us grasp not only what patients say, but what they are not able to say. Patients’ inability to express their feelings as well as their symptoms is highly prevalent in the general population; alexithymia has been diagnosed, for example, in 17% of an adolescent Italian population (3). Empathy can be learned (4, 5), and should be taught in medical schools.
The film struck a chord with the festival audience winning the Grand Prix and the Ecumenical Jury Prize in Cannes Film Festival in 2016. It is a different film for viewers who are used to action-packed block-busters; it excels in analyzing non-action in the life of a modern day family, and in doing so provides food for thought, reflection and empathy.
- https://monoskop.org/images/6/68/Deleuze_Gilles_Cinema_2_Time-Image.pdf (accessed Feb 3 2017).
- Placebo, Too many friends, from the album Loud Like Love, Universal Music, Virgin EMI, 2013.
- Scimeca G et al. The relationship between alexithymia, anxiety, depression, and internet addiction severity in a sample of Italian high school students. Scientific World Journal 2014; 2014:504376. doi: 10.1155/2014/504376.
- McDonagh J and Ljungkvist V. Learning empathy: medical school and the care of the dying patient. Journal of Palliative Medicine 2005, 2(4): 383-89.
- Bearman M et al. Learning Empathy through Simulation: A Systematic Literature Review. Simul Healthcare 2015; 10:308-19.
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