Québécois filmmaker Philippe Lesage quietly made one of the decade’s great narrative debuts with 2015’s “The Demons,” and distributors largely slept on it: A poised, perceptive study of childhood terrors both real and imagined, it made some waves on the festival circuit, but its discomfiting subject matter and stark structural breaks most likely held it back from the exposure it deserved. Undaunted, Lesage has doubled down on that film’s most challenging virtues to extraordinary effect in “Genesis,” a more diffuse but intricately emotive follow-up that extends the autobiographical focus of his debut into a yearning, bruising vision of unpracticed adolescent desire.
Though it’s partially an oblique sequel to “The Demons,” resuming its portrait of Lesage’s young alter ego Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) in the latter stretch of its luxuriant running time, the bulk of “Genesis” — a freestanding work, albeit enhanced by knowledge of its predecessor — is concerned with the respectively thorny, gawky romantic travails of two new characters, teenage siblings Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin, a minor player in “The Demons”) and Charlotte (Noée Abita). So intimately and empathetically does it portray their uncertain urges and expressions of sexuality, however, that it seems the director may have split his mirror into three. Once again lent human depth and texture by Lesage’s documentary background, this Locarno competition premiere is uncommonly tender, nervy coming-of-age storytelling, shaped in ways that will likely provoke dissent and debate among audiences who seek it out — here’s hoping distributors give them a chance to do so.
“Why’s it a shame for me to love?” asks a lyric in Montreal indie band TOPS’s 2014 synthpop single “Outside” — a dreamily plaintive, drunk-on-feeling modern torch song that Lesage uses as a recurring soundtrack to his characters’ romantic surges and sighing disappointments. It’s a question that applies to the trajectory of all three young principals, who find their desires either instructed or thwarted by outside forces, but most directly in the case of Guillaume, a 16-year-old student at an all-boys boarding school whose one-way longing for his best friend Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte) gradually brings about an unkind social downfall.
In class, the smart, lanky, Salinger-reading Guillaume is a confident prankster, superficially popular with his peers even if his only substantial friendship is with the more retiring, athletic Nicolas. Outside it, he’s adrift in a rapidly changing social sphere. In one exquisitely staged party scene, Guillaume shuffles awkwardly through a darkened sea of slow-dancing heterosexual pairings, against the general grain of movement, rhythm and woozy ambience: He has read the room, and found no place for himself in it. Cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni, again working in the richly colored, deep-shadowed palette of “The Demons,” wields a distant, implacable gaze on scenes rife with movement and conflict, from sports practice to pillow fights to acts of unconscionable violence: Lesage’s filmmaking, with its unhurried editing and eerily echoing music cues, is in expert sympathy with his hovering, out-of-time protagonists.
“Genesis” details with aching specificity the level of self-compromise and change insecure teens will make to pursue desire — for one amusing stretch of a largely serious-minded film, Guillaume misguidedly attempts to join his friend’s hockey team — and the frequent futility of such efforts. Yet even when Guillaume is his most honest self, finally articulating his unfamiliar love in a scene that should rank among cinema’s great high school confessionals — a wince-inducing high point in Pellerin’s lovely, twig-delicate performance — his reward is not what movie logic would generally dictate. Only Alexis (Antoine Marchand-Gagnon), a younger boy in his dormitory, seems to have any understanding of what he’s feeling, though their bond, too, is threatened by imposed regulations and expectations of masculinity.
By contrast, Guillaume’s straight, college-age sister Charlotte has less trouble accepting her sexuality and finding partners to share in it; it’s how that’s exploited and discarded by her male peers that leaves her wary of human connection. She has an ostensibly healthy thing going with geeky boyfriend Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk, who played a far more malevolent presence in “The Demons”), but swiftly loses faith when he idly floats the possibility of an open relationship — with all the grace and tact of any teenage boy feigning sexual worldliness. Swapping him for the older, more jockishly experienced Theo (Maxime Dumontier), however, proves unfulfilling after an initial libidinous rush: A man’s betrayals, it turns out, are no more mature than a boy’s.
Touching with brutal candor on patriarchal rape culture, Lesage unsentimentally inducts both siblings into an adulthood of crueller abuses still — before swerving, as in “The Demons,” into drastically disconnected tonal and narrative territory to catch up with Felix, now a thoughtful, guitar-playing young adolescent with a crush on Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a fellow resident at his folksy woodland summer camp. His feelings are requited, but the sun-dappled depiction of innocent first love that ensues is no cutesily redemptive coda to the darker stretches of the film, in which young hearts run free only as long as they don’t run into barbed wire.
Suddenly, that austere, enigmatic title makes sense: If this is “Genesis,” Felix and Beatrice are its Adam and Eve. What we’ve already seen hangs as an anxious shadow over two children with mercifully little sense of what’s to come. Just as Maxime airily suggests to Charlotte at the outset that the odds don’t favor their remaining together for life, Lesage’s alternately lyrical and horrifying ode to early heartbreak devises only the most knowingly impermanent of happy endings.