Fevered imagination and nightmarish reality brush shoulders to disconcerting effect in “The Demons,” Quebecois filmmaker Philippe Lesage’s extraordinary examination of childhood fears festering in broad suburban daylight. Putting his documentary training to disciplined use as he teases out the largely internalized insecurities — sexual, social and practical — of his 10-year-old protagonist, Lesage initially balances good-humored humanism with a formal sangfroid suggestive of a summer-brightened Haneke. A provocative shift in perspective at the midway point, however, calls the irrationality of those young neuroses into question: It’s a gambit that may divide auds, but leaves little doubt as to the expertise of the film’s directorial manipulation. A competition standout at San Sebastian, this difficult but frequently dazzling film promises still heftier work from its helmer; forward-thinking distributors should act accordingly.
Lesage’s rigorous stylistic poise in the face of potentially overheated subject matter could put some viewers in mind of transitional works by his compatriot Denis Villeneuve. It’s not hard to imagine the director — whose first narrative film, “Copenhague: A Love Story,” premiered only last year — making a comparable leap to more accessibly abrasive mainstream fare. For now, however, the independent documentarian’s eye that previously guided his four nonfiction features is assuredly in evidence from the first frame of “The Demons.” To the startling strains of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” a calm, reticently placed camera observes a class of pre-adolescent children as they practice freestyle dancing in a school gymnasium, the lack of evident adult instruction a harbinger of vulnerabilities to come. (The closing credits do, however, include a novel citation for a “professeur de breakdance.”)
Not entirely at ease within the group is Felix (piercing-of-gaze newcomer Edouard Tremblay-Grenier), a sensitive young lad whose nervous disposition and self-isolating instincts sit at odds with an otherwise happy, healthy existence in late-1980s suburban Montreal. At school, he socializes with suitable friends and silently crushes on his pretty young teacher (Victoria Diamond). At home, he’s doted on by his two older siblings (Vassili Schneider and Sarah Mottet) and parents (Laurent Lucas and Pascale Bussieres), though he’s just old enough to intuit cracks in their marriage even before they’re more openly exposed. (In one astonishing, hard-to-watch scene, a violent marital bust-up envelops all three children in a heaving human tangle, careering shrilly from room to room.)
Felix has hit the tricky age where most adults still presume carefree innocence, whereas he in fact has just enough knowledge of the adult world to make him unduly worried about almost everything. Channelling his own childhood, Lesage has cannily set his film in a pre-internet age where children had randomly selective access to information, making it easier for news stories and alarming urban legends alike to mutate and proliferate via the classroom grapevine. So it is that Felix’s critical exploration of his nascent sexuality is tainted by the rampant AIDS paranoia of the era, as well as by overheard fragments of his parents’ after-hours activity. Lesage’s script brilliantly senses what children absorb from the heedless conversations of their elders, and how they ultimately replay them.
Yet as word spreads through the community of a series of child kidnappings, Felix’s fears — whether of the dark, or of more complex inner demons — are concentrated on a threat that cannot easily be explained away. The immediacy of that threat is ambiguous until, an hour into the film, Lesage abruptly breaks away from his protagonist’s experience to trace the adjacent arc of an insidious (but likewise insecure) authority. It’s a risky, upsetting dislocation, one that leaves the pic open to charges of exploitation, but not at the expense of delicacy. Lesage remains sympathetic throughout to the psychological torment of his young subject, posing brutal actualities that reflect Felix’s own agitated imaginative impulses. As in “The Spirit of the Beehive,” Victor Erice’s classic anatomy of a fretful girl’s psyche, the tension between the two is never patly resolved; a child may be protected as much (or as little) by what he knows as what he doesn’t.
With due acknowledgement to the film’s remarkably naturalistic ensemble — with its own Ana Torrent presence in the intensely inquisitive Tremblay-Grenier — Lesage has a most invaluable ally in d.p. Nicolas Canniccioni’s expansively inclusive widescreen lensing. Whether in the schoolyard or at the municipal swimming pool, Canniccioni captures the fluid social interaction between Felix and his peers in still, watchful long shots that can turn, depending on the viewer’s own suspicions, from perceptive to predatory. First-person perspective is avoided throughout, however intimate the film’s sense of a character’s inner workings.
Lesage’s soundtrack curation is equally thoughtful, with shivery synth compositions by alternative electro outfit Pye Corner Audio lending a note of crepuscular worry even to the film’s most sun-kissed scenes. Stark classical selections interupt the atmospheric fuzz, while the film’s most inspired musical move is the repetition of South African singer Miriam Makeba’s jubilant township shuffle “Pata Pata” — first as a rare, chapter-ending note of untrammelled joy, and later as a wistful callback to innocence lost.