Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) has kept a secret from his family that is hanging heavily in his mind, not least because he left them behind twelve years ago and has had no desire to return. The secret has not been with him for that length of time, but it has changed his outlook on life since it will effectively end it soon: he is terminally ill so has opted, with the short period of existence he has left to him, to tell his family what he really thinks of them and with any luck reach some form of mutual respect. It's not as if they hated him and were glad to see the back of him, more that he found being in their presence suffocating, to the extent that while his sister Suzanne (Léa Seydoux) offered to drive him back from the airport, he preferred to take a taxi home...
Once again the things you can and cannot say to your family, but may well wish you could, were preying on director Xavier Dolan's mind and so it was he adapted a play by the writer Jean-Luc Lagarce who had passed away from AIDS in 1995, around twenty years before this was filmed by the Canadian. It had been one of his final works, written when he knew that the disease was more or less a death sentence, therefore it carried a lot of portent and resonance; he had not been much lauded when he was alive, but his efforts were rediscovered after he was gone, so he genuinely could be said to have lived on in his art, though largely in French-speaking territories as this film would likely be the first instance non-French audiences would have encountered him.
Was it a good introduction? Given that there was a lukewarm response at best among English speakers, particularly those who were cultural commentators, you would be tempted to say no, though the combination of a lot of famous French actors and a well-known playwright with Dolan's associated interest meant it was a fair-sized success in France. Some would have it that you needed to be able to understand the language to pick up on every nuance, but Dolan himself wrote the English subtitles (part of his seriously hands-on approach to his vocation) and they were sympathetic enough that you could pick up from the cast's inflections and expressions what the overall meaning of each scene was.
Indeed, Dolan did a very good job of achieving a universality to the family drama, mainly in the way he focused in tight closeups on the performers' faces so there was no getting away from either what the suggestion in what they were not saying or what they actually were. Louis' trouble is one of a lack of articulation, ironic in a man for whom words are his business, and as the afternoon rolls by he discovers precisely how difficult it is to admit to his mother (Nathalie Baye), brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel) and sister that he is dying. Only the person he has met for the first time, his sister-in-law Catherine (Marion Cotillard), perceives what is going unsaid, but she is too timid to encourage Louis to bring it out into the open even as he realises she has twigged why he returned to face them all after so long away.
The theme of things going unsaid, important things at that, was there in the fact that the protagonist was not about to state outright why he left, but a single afternoon with this lot and you can well believe that for a sensitive, gay young man they would simply be too overbearing to have a heart to heart with, they are the stars of their own lives and consider everyone else supporting players, so reaching out to a troubled family member would be beyond them. We see idyllic flashbacks occasionally as Louis's memories come back to haunt him, and can accept that he could even be nostalgic about the boorish Antoine or the in his face mother, but also that a few hours spent with them would be more than enough and he would have to scurry back to the relative peace of his "real life". In truth, Dolan did not quite prevent a monotony creeping in as Louis had to confront each character in turn, except confronting them was not what he was capable of, so we had to consider how they would recall this afternoon after he had left forever for the emotional impact to register. Nevertheless, a potent work if you took the opportunity to chew it over. Music by Gabriel Yared.