Philippe Lesage on his heartfelt coming of age film Genesis
Three teens take romantic leaps of the heart in Quebecois director Philippe Lesage's bruising but tender coming-of-age film Genesis
Forget Xavier Dolan; writer-director Philippe Lesage may be the most exciting filmmaker to emerge from Quebec in the last few years. But unlike the director of Mommy and Heartbeats, Lesage has had some struggle getting his films wider distribution, at least in English-language territories.
Reportedly drawn from autobiographical experience, The Demons, his acclaimed narrative debut after a string of documentaries, earned strong notices – including at Glasgow Film Festival 2017 – and favourable comparisons to the thriller stylings of Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke. In it, a young boy in Montreal begins experiencing the adult world, as he enters adolescence against a backdrop of local child kidnappings.
For his latest feature, Genesis, Lesage strays into autobiographical territory once more for a tale of teenagers in love. In fact, Genesis loops us back in with the filmmaker’s alter ego Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the lead of The Demons, at an older age. This is not a literal sequel, though, which is perhaps wise considering the erratic distribution of Lesage's films mentioned earlier. Think François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, where seeing every entry isn't required, but if you do seek them all out you’ll get a little something extra out of the experience.
Félix is not the main focus for most of the new film, though. For the majority of the runtime, we follow the stories of two older teen step-siblings – Charlotte (Noée Abita) and Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) – as they navigate romantic travails; she with various mediocre male suitors, he with coming to terms with his sexuality and feelings for a friend in an all-boys boarding school. Then, once their concurrent stories conclude, Lesage’s final act focuses on Félix at a summer camp, experiencing the pangs of first love with a girl who seems to like him back.
“The interesting thing about it is that if I were to do a film about my childhood ten years from now, it would be completely different,” says Lesage, when we sit down to speak to him in a sweltering café after the film’s world premiere at Switzerland’s Locarno Festival last summer. "Your own perception and memory are always changing in the long run and the perception you have of your childhood, of your teenage years is constantly evolving as well.”
Regarding why he’s interested in these particular age ranges when it comes to matters of the heart, he tells us: “The Demons is really focusing on the kid discovering that these adults around him are animated by something strange called sexuality, and then the moment where he's discovering his own sexuality and being afraid of it in a way. And here [in Genesis], it’s a bit different. The fear is not there but you have these strong passions when you’re a teenager. You feel love like it's hitting you like a truck and it's really strong. And the drama or the tragic aspects of loving when you’re a teen is that you have a big chance to be surrounded by the wrong people and to love the wrong people.
"The perception you have of your childhood, of your teenage years is constantly evolving" – Philippe Lesage
“Also, I was interested in the fact that at that age, I don't think people always have all their sexual preferences worked out, or it's something that is moving and it's something that changes depending on what you're experiencing at a very young age. That’s why I think it’s a very rich period where you struggle because you don't really know who you are and then you're experiencing this and experiencing that. And then this is going to have an impact on the trajectory of your own love life or sexual life for the rest of your life. And for the rest of your life, I still think that is something that is moving and changing.”
Lesage puts his characters, or at least Charlotte and Guillaume, through the ringer, with emotional and physical abuses of varying kinds cropping up by the end of their stories (for prospective viewers, we should mention that potentially distressing themes of sexual assault make an appearance in both their plot threads). That said, Lesage is keen to emphasise the overall streak of optimism in their stories and his genuine affection for his characters: “These characters, especially Charlotte, they're passionate and they’re not protecting themselves. That’s why I love them and I respect them: because they're fearless. They're not trying to protect themselves.
"It's very sad when I see friends backing off from somebody that they could actually fall for; where they’re backing off from something that is love. And they’re backing off because they're afraid and I think that's cowardice, but it’s also to protect themselves because they're afraid to be hurt again. And these two characters are, for me, like romantic heroes in the sense that they are fearless and they just go through it completely. Even if they have to touch the bottom of the barrel, they will still go for it.”
Genesis screens at Glasgow Film Festival – Sat 2 Mar, GFT, 5.30pm; Sun 3 Mar, CCA, 11.30am