Coming of age, Quebec style

Filmmaker Sébastien Pilote and actors from La disparition des lucioles on the universality of small town stories.

Pierre-Luc Brillant and Karelle Tremblay in La disparition des lucioles

Sébastien Pilote lives and works in Chicoutimi, about five hours from Montreal. While it’s certainly not unheard of for filmmakers to live outside of the city, few represent “le cinéma des régions” in such a direct way. All three of Pilote’s films were shot in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean — the very same place, dear reader, that I also happen to be from. It would therefore be a good move on my part to admit that I am 100 per cent the perfect target audience for his new film La disparition des lucioles. I’ve seen hundreds of coming-of-age films set all over the world, but none of them have ever been about the area where I came of age (so to speak — some may argue it has yet to happen).

“I do it naturally,” says Pilote of shooting in and around where he lives. “I never felt like it was my duty. Maybe a little more at the beginning, but these days it happens naturally. That’s just the way the stories I want to tell wind up being set. I’m a little like Stanley Kubrick — I like shooting close to home so I can go sleep in my own bed at night. (laughs) But they’re also imaginary towns. The town in the movie, it’s kind of La Baie, but we shot it in Jonquière, Chicoutimi, Saint-Ambroise… it’s a patchwork. The most important thing to me was getting the old plant in front of the bay.”

Léonie (Karelle Tremblay) is about to finish high school, and the question of what she expects from her future is on everyone’s mind — everyone’s but her own. Cynical and aimless, she tries to spend as much time as possible away from her mother (Marie-France Marcotte) and right-wing radio pundit stepfather (François Papineau). She feels stifled by where she lives, partly because every day she has to bike by the plant that closed after a union snafu brought on by her stepfather’s daily talk show tirades, forcing her father (Luc Picard) to work up north for months at a time. It’s when she meets Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant), a 30-something metalhead who lives in his mom’s basement and subsists by giving guitar lessons, that Léonie really starts letting her guard down. Their (platonic) friendship grows as Léonie’s mysterious future looms, seemingly always just out of reach.

Though the film’s setting is impossibly personal to me as it’s full of places I know, skylines I remember and people I’ve met, Pilote is confident that the film will resonate with everyone. (And the story bears that out — our interview happened a few days before the film took the Best Canadian Feature prize at TIFF.)

“When I made Le vendeur, we screened it at Sundance,” says Pilote. “It’s a movie about a plant closing down that I shot in Dolbeau and it was a snowy movie. When we screened the movie, people from all over the United States told me, ‘I feel like this a story about Detroit, where I’m from!’ Later we screened it in Mumbai, and people said the same thing! Stories remain universal, I think. The details may change, but cinema expresses itself otherwise.”

“I always find it interesting to shoot away from home because it creates a kind of osmosis within the team,” says Brillant. “We become a kind of clan, you know, because we’re ‘sequestered.’ It has to bond us. And there’s also a vested interest in not starting stupid fights; the kind of little squabble that usually happens on a set tends to die out pretty quick when you can’t go back home at night. And I like the region. I think it’s ugly, from an architectural point of view, but the people are very welcoming. There’s also a kind of interesting chauvinism that brews up, too, because people are very proud to be from where they’re from!”

“I prefer it, honestly,” says Tremblay about shooting away from home. “It helps with my concentration. When I shoot in Montreal, my friends are around. Sometimes, it’s good — if you’re on a show for months on end, it’s nice to come back home and see people that have nothing to do with the shoot. In that context, I thought it was very cool to be elsewhere. I was concentrated, I had no distractions. Everything happens much faster since everyone’s together morning, noon and night. None of us were from there except for Seb, so we could discover a place together.”

Sébastien Pilote, Karelle Tremblay and Pierre-Luc Brillant on the set of La disparition des lucioles

Pilote mentions that when the film screened at the film festival in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, many of the comments were about how novel it was to have a movie exploring these themes with a female character. Most of Léonie’s interactions are with men; the most important female characters (her mother and her best friend from school) only further her sarcasm and alienation.

“I think it would have been the same thing with a guy in the lead,” says Tremblay. “The point is to show a character that’s so cynical, she’s completely over cynicism. It’s about a young person who evolves in the way the world is right now. Sébastien says it all the time: the world is a cynical place. It’s kind of a cliché to say it, at this point. But I don’t think the gender of my character changes much. Maybe it softens her violent side — the attitude she has towards everyone around her. It softens her anger.”

“There’s certainly a level of sadness to my character,” says Brillant. “There’s something that feels unresolved. On the other hand, you know, he does what he loves — he plays guitar for a living. No highs, no lows. But he’s also wounded by his antisocial tendencies. There had to be some of that, or else he would just be this happy idiot. There’s certainly a level of introspection, and he’s not naive either. Without that, it wouldn’t have been that interesting to watch — maybe it still isn’t, I don’t know (laughs) — but he can’t also remain in complete stasis. What’s interesting is that he’s also the opposite of Léo; he’s the very opposite of cynical.”

“Léo’s a very cynical character who can be quick to jump to sarcasm,” says Pilote. “She sees life through snake eyes, in her words, but she finds that to be very exhausting. She lives in a world where everyone is cynical, but putting forth a different kind of cynicism. No one is ever sincere, no one is ever really good. When she meets Steve, she’s attracted to him not only because he looks like a rocker, but because he has absolutely no critical sense. He’s a guy with talent but no taste. (laughs) But he likes his life and he doesn’t really require more from it. ‘Meh’ is enough for him. What he likes is putting on Rush records and air-drumming to them; that’s what makes him happy and will make him happy as long as he can afford to buy more Rush records. He doesn’t have much ambition, and I think that’s fine. It’s good to have smaller ambitions.”

Pilote isn’t kidding when he talks about air-drumming to Rush – Brillant has a scene in which he renders a beat-for-beat air-drumming performance of a song by the pomp-progsters. I can’t tell you which one, because I have a visceral hatred of Rush — something, tragically, shared by Brillant. “Oh, fuck!” Brillant exclaims. “That’s hours and hours of volunteering, right there. (laughs) Fucking Toronto music — I can’t stand it! It really represents the coldness of Toronto. (laughs) The very by-the-book side of it. It was truly wretched, especially considering I’m not a drummer. I watched videos of little kids doing the intro on drum sets; I watched tons of them. Thankfully I have some music theory, I could even get the sheet music to try and figure it out. But I hate that fucking song and I’ve always hated that fucking song. Don’t get me wrong, they’re talented musicians, but it’s so fucking cold.”

The lucioles of the title (the English title is The Fireflies Are Gone) refer to a story put forth by the blowhard radio-poubelle host played by Papineau in which modern life has become so bright that fireflies have essentially disappeared. Symbolically, Léonie eventually gets a job as caretaker of a baseball field that seems to only be used at night — under the harshest, most unnatural lights.

“That’s the whole story of the movie, really,” says Pilote. “To show that everything is lit up now, and we can’t see the faint glow of hope or changing tides, because the dominant light just shines way too bright. (…) There’s a shot that I love in the movie where Léo falls asleep on the baseball field with the lights on; at night, they’re incredibly bright, but when she wakes up, the sun’s brighter. You don’t see the artificial light anymore. You can’t light the sun brighter, you can’t see it more than it already is.” ■

La disparition des lucioles opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 21. Watch the trailer here: