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By Adam Nayman
On the basis of Les démons (2015) and his latest film Genèse—I haven’t caught up yet with Copenhague, a Love Story (2016) or his documentaries—Saint-Apagit-born writer-director Philippe Lesage is already one of the strongest stylists in Canadian cinema, cultivating, in collaboration with the gifted cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni, a distanced, gliding camera style that echoes of contemporary fest-circuit heavyweights (including Haneke and Östlund) but imbued with its own palpable aesthetic and dramatic rationale. Both Les démons and Genèse—which premiered in Locarno in August before seemingly being bypassed in favour of who knows what by TIFF—have been reliably described by reviewers as semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories: studies, respectively, of adolescent fear (via Les démons’ horror-inflected atmospherics) and desire, in Genèse’s parallel goodbye-first-love narratives.
This taxonomy is true enough, but it’s also reductive. There are coming-of-age films that shamelessly play to festival-programmer and viewer expectations, and those that try for some sort of end-around. I’d say that Lesage is in the second category, and that his focus is somewhat more refined than the basic theme of “growing pains.” He’s fascinated by the dynamic between the individual and his or her peer group—a relationship that is especially trepidatious during periods of transition and isn’t necessarily reconciled over time. His films’ long takes convey stasis, but their subject is flux, and their already characteristic cycling between impassive, quasi-ethnographic panoramas of young people at play—swarming herdlike through playgrounds, forests, and nightclub dance floors—and a more intimate form of individual portraiture isn’t just a stylistic tic. Rather, it’s an eloquent means of signalling that these stories and their protagonists are begging to be read in both specific and allegorical terms.
There’s another, more concrete common denominator between Les démons and Genèse: the character of Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the ten-year-old boy whose psychosexual anxieties were at the centre of the earlier film, and who pops back up in the closing passages of its successor as a slightly more confident preteen romantic lead. The obvious model for this gambit is François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, except that Genèse’s unusual structure works against the idea that Felix is a lead: his section is bracketed off in counterpoint to the main action, serving almost as an extended coda. It’s a strategy that works to successfully discombobulate viewers whether or not they’re aware of the connective tissue to Les démons. Similarly, extra-textual knowledge that Felix is a Doinel-esque alter ego for his director doesn’t intrinsically enhance a characterization that’s fully vivid and lived-in on its own terms, beginning with Tremblay-Grenier’s wary, watchful performance style, which isn’t so much “unaffected” (a word critics love to apply to child actors) as it is a plausible embodiment of pubertal paranoia.
Les démons gives Felix plenty to be scared of, starting with a waking variation on the oldest nightmare in the (grade-school note) book: showing up for a quiz without a pencil. The embarrassment is compounded by the fact that Felix has a romantic fixation on the attractive, twentysomething teacher (Victoria Diamond) who’s administering the test, and whose response to another student’s offer of her own pencil—“From now on, nobody lends him anything”—is suggestive of some larger plight. If there’s something schematic about the ways that Lesage keeps laying out scenarios that serve to simultaneously challenge and reinscribe his hero’s hormonal helplessness—stumbling across a friend’s attractive mother scrubbing her floor in the nude; eavesdropping on his father (Laurent Lucas, distracting) as he chats the same woman up later that evening; surveying the not-quite-nubile bodies of his friends at a swimming pool—it’s also impressive how consistently the visual and thematic relationships between scenes serve to open up rather than close off both the interpretive and emotional resonance of the material. The clinical, Hanekean framing of an early scene where Felix and his pal stuff an even shrimpier boy into a change-room cubbyhole only to realize they’ve forgotten the combination to free him establishes a plausible hierarchy of beta-male cruelty, but its full power isn’t unlocked until a later sequence where Felix hides in his bedroom closet, stricken by the terrifying thought that he has carelessly and accidentally contracted AIDS after some funny games with a male classmate.
Here, Lesage is not mocking Felix’s lack of worldliness, nor scoring points off of it. Rather, he’s illustrating the power of misinformation in the arena of sexual maturity, which the film seems to say is as vital a rite of passage as sexual contact itself. In 2018, one would expect this idea to be communicated via the conceit of impressionable kids mesmerized by social media (which is how it plays out in Bo Burnham’s cutesy and overrated Eighth Grade), but Les démons is set in a sort of parallel reality that resembles the ’80s in the lack of cell phones and internet, but boasts just enough contemporary details to keep us from confidently pigeonholing it as a period piece. (The same goes for Genèse’s vague temporality, which is not quite defined by the use of TOPS’ 2014 single “Outside.”) Instead, Lesage, who has copped to fudging his films’ eras in interviews, is chasing a sense of primal timelessnes, which plays out not only in Felix’s attempt to recognize and reconcile his burgeoning urges but also a slower-developing plot strand about a sullen, withdrawn teenage lifeguard (Pier-Luc Funk), who begins as a figure in the background before gradually and frighteningly coming into focus.
The horror-movie dread lurking around the edges of Les démons takes over in its second half, which shifts the sense of threat definitively—and irretrievably—from an abstract to a physical plane. It’s a move that could be read by skeptical or unsympathetic viewers as a capitulation to the modern art-sploitation template laid down by Haneke and other Cannes-ratified directors; I confess to wishing that Lesage had resisted the temptation of a gorily austere money shot, or at least cut it out after the fact. Yet this change-over has its own integrity: the contrast between Felix’s frantic, guilty-yet-innocent conscience, and the more deservedly pressurized headspace of a young man who could be his slightly older yet equally reticent mirror image is exactly as unsettling as the filmmaker intends, as is the fact that both young men are haunted (in Felix’s case, literally) by the same diminutive figure. The staging of one archetypal set-up is placed into even sharper relief by the precisely chosen setting of one pivotal event: a murder rendered with calculated austerity.
For all its gradual accrual of life-or-death intensity, Les démons ends on a blissful note, with Felix safely swallowed up in Edenic foliage, waving goodbye to his older siblings as he moves beyond their purview. It’s a gesture that comes off, intentionally and affectingly, as a farewell to childhood: the end of the beginning. In Genèse, whose title encodes both the Old Testament and the theme of youthful beginning (think “jeunesse”) as surely as Les démons’ moniker telegraphed its scarifying side, Felix is similarly placed within a pastoral setting, although it takes some 100 minutes of screen time to get to him. In lieu of picking up his surrogate’s narrative right away, Lesage introduces Montréal step-siblings Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and Charlotte (Noée Abita), the former stashed away at an all-boys boarding school while the latter navigates the landscape of the university campus. The script keeps the two characters mostly separate while—as with Felix and the lifeguard in Les démons—positioning them dialectically. A born performer who satirizes classmates and his severe teacher with equal class-clown adeptness, Guillaume acts out as a means of channelling and disguising queer desires; Charlotte is at once more socially self-effacing and more sexually open, taking her high-school boyfriend’s (Funk again, in a less fraught but still unsympathetic part) thoughtless comment about their not being together forever as carte blanche to sleep with other people. (Funk’s face when he realizes his self-serving ploy has backfired is quite hilarious, if not without a bit of fuckboi pathos.) Charlotte’s embrace of her own insatiable agency—and with it a sexy, stubbly, older indie-rocker boyfriend (Maxime Dumontier)—creates a slant rhyme with her brother’s pent-up frustration, which is less about instant gratification (as one might expect from a teenaged guy) than an authentic and unlikely-to-be-requited romantic longing for a muscled, unambiguously straight hockey-star buddy (Jules Roy Sicotte).
Théodore Pellerin, who had a small part in Les démons and also showed up in Xavier Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde (2016), is a magnetic actor, and his presence upsets Genèse’s conceptual balance. Guillaume, who devours Salinger paperbacks and has photos of Morrissey plastered to his bunk, needs to be the centre of attention at all times, and his extroversion, however deceptive, grants Pellerin more opportunities to flex his professional muscles than his co-star Abita. Charlotte is a vaguer creation: when her lover caresses her naked torso and comments sleazily on her beauty, it’s as much a summation of the film’s desirous gaze as his own, and not enough is done to counter it. Ideally, we’d care as much about Charlotte’s arc and its inevitable, telegraphed moment of steep decline as we do Guillaume’s, but as in Les demons, with its mostly symbolic distaff players, Lesage’s perspective—however tender and empathetic it may be—perceives women safely from the outside in. Guillaume, though, feels inhabited from the inside out, and Pellerin’s triumphant comedy in the early classroom scenes pays off in a climactic monologue, set against the same pedagogical backdrop, that instantly makes its way onto the list of the great movie confessionals: it’s sweet, funny, spontaneous, heartbreaking, and believable in a fashion that brushes against, rather than smooths over, the poised, anodyne quality of some of the filmmaking that surrounds it.
Guilliame’s futile act of personal bravery and Charlotte’s undeserved and all too commonplace sexual comeuppance are both examples of the perils of being true to one’s heart. Felix’s interlude, which takes place at a co-ed camp, isn’t styled to break the pattern; rather, it repeats it, albeit in a gentler way, with Felix crushing hopefully on fellow camper Beatrice (Émilie Bierre) and, after countless stolen glances and hesitant exchanges, getting what he wants. Except that we can’t help but watch this pair’s idyllic courtship—and the ostensibly happy ending it builds to, with its unmistakable visual echoes of Les démons’ lush greenery—outside the context created by the preceding stories, or perhaps our own formative experiences. Like Mia Hansen-Løve, Lesage makes the sorts of movies that some viewers will inevitably treat as mirrors: the glittering sunshine at the end of Genèse is shadowed by the compromises that we suspect (or know) are lying in wait, just out of frame, perhaps to be taken up in another film. I certainly hope so: if the controlled drift and genuine open-endedness of Les démons hinted that Lesage was wary of narrative conventions or closure, the quietly audacious structural trick of Genèse confirms that he’s at least as interested in playing his own game as he is in bending the existing rules.