- Written and directed by: Philippe Lesage
- Starring: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita and Édouard Tremblay-Grenier
- Classification: N/A
- 129 minutes
Everything about Philippe Lesage’s career has, so far, been too damn quiet. The Québécois filmmaker’s astounding feature debut, The Demons (Les démons), was greeted with acclaim on the European festival circuit in 2015, but was ignored by the Toronto International Film Festival that year and received a too-quick-for-human-eyes rep-cinema release in Toronto a few months later (at least TIFF made belated amends by including the film in its annual winter spinoff, Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, in 2016). I fear a similar fate awaits, or has already befallen, Genesis (Genèse), Lesage’s follow-up and one of the strongest films of the year, no matter its country (or province) of provenance.
The drama is an intricately constructed and intensely felt work that transcends the easy “coming-of-age” genre label that is so tempting to slap onto it. Following the romantic travails of two stepsiblings, the high-schooler Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and the university student Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis has no use for easy answers or first-love tropes. Both characters are searching for a deeper connection with the world – the curious Guillaume with his boarding-school best friend, an unambiguously straight jock, and the more sexually comfortable Charlotte with a pair of inadequate male lovers – and both stumble badly, through their own misreadings and an especially brutal series of external betrayals. But Lesage isn’t doling out lessons here – he is only intensely curious in how our urges and misreadings can lead to the most natural of human drama.
If Genesis were merely a passionate inquisition of desire, that would be enough. But the filmmaker also reveals himself – at least for those who have yet to see The Demons – as a preternaturally gifted visual storyteller. Along with The Demons cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni, Lesage captures a youth-swarmed Montreal in perpetual motion, his characters moving through the city’s sweaty clubs and sweltering streets with an unease that feels as nervy as it does universal. This eye for tenderness, for creating a million little short stories out of every frame, is perhaps a skill Lesage picked up during his time as a documentary filmmaker. However he came to hone this aesthetic and narrative talent, though, Genesis arrives on the screen with all the confidence its characters lack.
Which isn’t to say that Guillaume and Charlotte are drips, or mere objects of pity. They can be just as blind to the needs and feelings of others, oblivious to the fact that romantic connections are two-way interactions. They are young and naive and horny in all the ways that we adults like to believe we’re now past. But nothing here feels presented in an obligatory fashion – we’re not tired of hearing Guillaume and Charlotte’s stories before they begin. There are perpetual twitches of surprise to their actions – moments of intense empathy – and a through-line of sincerity that is narratively irresistible. It’s possible that the characters might not hold the centre were it not for the magnetic, unreserved performances of Abita and Pellerin (who also appeared in The Demons). But there is no use thinking of what might have been, only of what there is. And what Genesis is, what Lesage has accomplished, is nothing short of revelatory.
The film does have one moment that feels, at first, like an act of self-sabotage. During its final 15 minutes, Charlotte and Guillaume’s stories are substituted for an unrelated tale, that of a young boy named Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) working through a crush while at summer camp. The fact that Felix was the lead character of The Demons, here slightly grown up, isn’t a problem. The coda works as a stand-alone story, whether you’ve seen Lesage’s 2015 film or not. The only risk is that Lesage is seemingly priming his audience for the sort of heartache that, were it to happen to the more innocent Félix, would be past the point of simple devastation, approaching something close to emotional exploitation. This ends up being a moot concern, as Lesage closes this last, unexpected chapter of Genesis with all the empathy that the rest of the film embraces, plus a last-minute and welcome burst of rule-changing glee. It is the mark of a filmmaker who not only knows the game, but how he can best play it.
The final challenge of Genesis, then, is not how it concludes, but how to actually consume it in English Canada. Despite TIFF once again bypassing Lesage’s work at its festival this past September, the organization is (also once again) screening the film as part of its Canada’s Top Ten Film offshoot. And, ideally, Genesis will find an eager reception at next weekend’s Canadian Screen Awards, where it is up for best motion picture. This is all welcome – so long as it isn’t greeted with the muted response that The Demons encountered. That sort of silence would be deafening.
Genesis opens March 22 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).