Film Review: ‘Genesis’

Canadian writer-director Philippe Lesage follows 'The Demons' with another rewardingly complex reflection on the emotional trials of youth.

Philippe Lesage
Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier

2 hours 10 minutes

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.

Film Review: 'Genesis'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Competition), Aug. 6, 2018. Running time: 130 MIN. (Original title: "Genèse")

Production: (Canada) A Productions L'Unité Centrale production. (International sales: Be For Films, Brussels.) Producer: Galilé Marion-Gauvin.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Philippe Lesage. Camera (color): Nicolas Canniccioni. Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo.

With: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Pier-Luc Funk, Émilie Bierre, Maxime Dumontier, Paul Ahmarani, Jules Roy Sicotte, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Brett Dier. (French, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Azania Muendane

    Locations Africa Expo Sends Message in Durban: ‘Africa is Ready’

    DURBAN–The first edition of the Locations Africa Expo and Conference was held this week during the Durban FilmMart, with an eye toward identifying and growing the opportunities to lure incoming productions to the continent. “Locations Africa is trying to service a need on the continent to discuss the physical production…on the ground, highlighting film commissions, [...]

  • The Lion King

    China Box Office: 'Looking Up' is Surprise Weekend Winner Ahead of 'Lion King'

    Actor and comedian Deng Chao underlined his enduring popularity with mainstream Chinese audiences, delivering a surprise number one hit in “Looking Up.” It scored $38.6 million in its opening weekend, according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway, and displaced “The Lion King” from its previous perch. “Looking Up” is a family comedy about a father’s [...]

  • Unathi Malonga

    Report Urges South African Media to ‘Step Up’ Against Gender Violence

    DURBAN–In a country with some of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the world, South African media must step up and play a greater role in the fight against gender inequality and gender-based violence. That was the conclusion of a report, “Gender, Diversity and Gender-based Violence in South African TV,” that was [...]


    SAG-AFTRA Leaders Approve Proposal for New Film-TV Contract

    The SAG-AFTRA national board has approved proposals for a successor deal to its master contract covering feature film and primetime television — a key step in the upcoming negotiations cycle with companies. The board approved the package Saturday with the performers union declining to reveal any specifics — its usual policy. The board established the wages [...]

  • Cameron Crowe, David Crosby, A.J. Eaton.

    Cameron Crowe on Why He Loved Leaving David Crosby Doc on a CSNY Question Mark

    David Crosby may or may not have stuck a joint in Cameron Crowe’s mouth the first time he ever met the future filmmaker, when Crosby was peaking with Crosby Stills Nash & Young and his interviewer was a precocious 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. As Crowe said to Jimmy Kimmel the other night, “I remember it [...]

  • Mokalik

    Nigeria’s Kunle Afolayan: African Audiences Shouldn’t Be ‘Second-Class’

    DURBAN–A young boy from a middle-class home gets an unconventional schooling in the ways of the world when he’s forced to apprentice at a mechanic’s workshop in a rough-and-tumble section of Lagos. “Mokalik” is the latest feature from Kunle Afolayan, a leading figure in the wave of filmmakers revitalizing the Nigerian film industry. The film [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content