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Gaspard Ulliel balances carefully on the audience’s sympathies as Louis, the main character of Xavier Dolan’s new film, It’s Only the End of the World.

In the opening moments of Xavier Dolan's latest feature, as a taxi speeds through small towns carrying a dying man home to his family, it passes a house with one of those gracefully curving exterior staircases that one finds in only one place in the world: Quebec. So, this corrosive family drama is apparently set in North America. It may then disturb audiences who know the French language to hear that its characters – played by an all-star cast from France – speak with the sharp accents of Europe.

It's Only the End of the World, which won Dolan the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in May and has divided critics ever since, was adapted from a play of the same title written by the French author Jean-Luc Lagarce in 1990 – and it takes place in some kind of hermetic theatrical world that seems to exist outside of a specific time and place. Initially, that makes it a puzzling piece in which viewers may have difficulty situating themselves, but its claustrophobic drama does ultimately rise to the level of the universal. If his pictures often get fuzzy around the edges, here is another film that reveals the young Quebec filmmaker as a great creator of characters and director of actors.

In a voice-over as he travels toward them, Louis explains that he has come home to see his relatives after an absence of 12 years to announce his impending death. The film never tells us how or why he is dying. If this were 1990, we would assume he has AIDS, the disease that killed Lagarce five years after he wrote his play, but the action is apparently set in the present. Nor does the script, which Dolan adapted himself, enter into any awkward exposition of back story to explain why Louis, a gay man who lives in a big city that his family never visits, has stayed away so long. Instead, the bravado of his crass mother, the anxiety of his deadbeat sister, the anger of his nasty brother and the sorrow of his gentle sister-in-law speak volumes about why he might have left.

As he enters her suburban bungalow, Louis's mother is shown in the front hall still finishing her electric-blue manicure with a hair-dryer even while her long-lost son walks through the door. From the sidelines, her daughter desperately screams at her the news that he has arrived: The pair's agitation over how they will be perceived by the prodigal ultimately overwhelms their ability to present themselves well.

It is that kind of tragic dynamic that is so sensitively exposed by the outstanding performances Dolan draws from his powerful ensemble. The startling blue nails and heavily coiffed hair serving as her armour for the character, Nathalie Baye plays the overly ebullient mother as the kind of parent who sucks all the oxygen from the room, forever prattling, repeating the same stories over and over, encouraging others to speak and then interrupting them, reducing her children to perpetual infants locked in impotent rage.

In particular, she wages war with her youngest, Suzanne, the sister Louis has not seen since she was 10. Suzanne is now a stoner living in the basement and an unrecognizable Léa Seydoux (Spectre) draws a heartbreaking portrait of insecurity, stasis and waste. Their older brother Antoine treats her with vicious contempt; he is by far the most toxic family member and yet Vincent Cassel reveals the insecurities of a blunt character with magnificent delicacy. Cassel and Dolan finesse beautifully the film's final visceral moments in which it may dawn on an audience why it is that Antoine is so violently adamant Louis now leave.

Meanwhile, Marion Cotillard gives a sweetly sensitive performance as Antoine's downtrodden and ineffectual wife, valiantly trying to make peace between the brothers and understand the unhappiness behind her husband's anger.

These four all talk incessantly and angrily – Dolan was clearly attracted by the way Lagarce tracks human relations as ruthlessly as a Eugene O'Neill or Samuel Beckett – so it falls to Gaspard Ulliel as Louis to play their monosyllabic foil, understanding their pain, feeling his own, yet ultimately proving incapable of saying what needs to be said. He balances the character delicately on the edge of our sympathies, revealing a certain snobbery or unconcern in the remote Louis all the while demonstrating his anguish.

Dolan occasionally fills in some of the past in wordless and ghostly flashbacks or surveys the scenery outside the house but these gestures are never as convincing as the intense close-ups that the interactions in this drama require.

In the end, the explosion of this unhappy home compensates greatly for the film's odd setting; you sense you are in the presence of a classic dissection of family relations. Wherever It's Only the End of the World is supposed to be located, the house to which Louis has returned is the site for some Greek tragedy.