Teenage turmoil, with a twist

Filmmaker Philippe Lesage on revisiting emotional minefields in his new film Genèse.

Théodore Pellerin and Noée Abita in Genèse

Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) goes to an elite boarding school in the city where he lives. While not exactly a problem kid, he’s rambunctious and overly bright, prone to being bored within the confines of the institution. His best friend Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte), who lives off campus, represents a sort of salvation — one that Guillaume starts to feel is turning into feelings stronger than friendship. Meanwhile, his CEGEP-age half-sister Charlotte (Noée Abita) finds herself shaken when her sorta-dorky boyfriend Maxime (Pierre-Luc Funk) suggests they have an open relationship. He soon goes back on the decision, but at that point it’s too late for Charlotte, who hooks up with an older guy (Maxime Dumontier) she meets at a bar. He’s exciting but on another level, not exactly as considerate of her feelings as Maxime is, which sends her on another quest.

Genèse is Philippe Lesage’s second narrative feature — and his second film about young people.

“Both of my films have a heavily autobiographical bent,” says Lesage. “Maybe I feel like I have the maturity now to speak about something that happened 20 years ago. I feel like looking back on that is easier; that maybe I don’t have the maturity to speak about what happened to me yesterday. That distance is interesting because it allows me not to feel too close to the topic, and yet I can isolate the essential parts of it and filter through it at a distance. I can better tell what’s pertinent and universal — and what isn’t.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” he continues. “There are things that I write that are fairly difficult to go back to. When I wrote Les démons, for example, I was a little ashamed of things I could’ve thought or done at that age. I was really going deep into it to make that movie, and Genèse is a bit of the same thing. There’s a portion of my guts on the table. I still feel very close to the child or the teenager that I once was. Going back to that well isn’t always pleasant. It’s freeing, but it isn’t necessarily easy.”

Paul Ahmarani and Théodore Pellerin in Genèse

Without getting into which aspects of his real life he used in the film (suffice to say that once you see the film you might see why this isn’t the kind of thing you’d discuss off-the-cuff with a virtual stranger), I ask him how the autobiographical elements come across in the writing. Unlike a film such as 1991, Genèse isn’t explicitly autobiographical.

“Both films were written with a sort of urgency,” he explains. “I tend to write pretty fast. Once I’m plunged into that universe, it flows pretty easily. Real elements mix with fictional elements in order to make the films. Melding those two together is a part of that work — it’s one of the bases of storytelling. But I’d say that often, if I’m concentrated… it took me less than a month to write the scripts for Genèse and Les démons. Maybe it also has to do with the fact that it took me so long to get to make fiction features. When I worked in documentary, the writer in me wasn’t satisfied. The second I was able to do fiction, it was so liberating and I had been waiting for so long that the impulse took over.”

The character in Genèse are older that those in Les démons, but they’re not quite adults, either. They don’t have the total freedom of adulthood, only the tantalizing partial freedom of impending adulthood, which is often the force that makes for the best and most accurate films about teenagers.

“I think Charlotte and Guillaume really assert their right to love,” he says. “And in fact, they jump into love with doubt or fear. They’re not afraid to fall flat on their faces. They might fall flat on their faces, but that kind of freedom… you’re constricted in terms of liberty, but that’s what motivates them: to get to the end of their own passion. As you get older, you’re not necessarily being brought back to order by classes and teachers and so on, and you’re not living at your parents’, but I think some walls stay up regardless. I admire my characters because I think that as we get older, we think of ourselves as free, but we’ll be the first to back down when faced with the possibility of living that kind of love because we’re afraid to get hurt. We put walls up. What I think is interesting about that period in our lives is that youth can’t really let us down, because it’s the future. It’s our duty to keep our rebellious teenage side alive, if only to avoid building those walls around ourselves. It’s as if the characters have a lesson to give the grown-ups.”

Émilie Bierre in Genèse

About 90 minutes and change into Genèse, Charlotte and Guillaume’s story ends and the focus instead changes to Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of Lesage’s previous film Les démons — making the connection between young people in both of Lesage’s features not just parallel but direct. Félix, too, is wrapped up in young love. He’s at summer camp and enamored with Béatrice (Émilie Bierre), a fellow camper he’s barely even spoken to. The narrative and tonal break has been jarring for some audiences, particularly those unfamiliar with Les démons.

“To me it’s a variation on the same theme,” says Lesage. “The sequence is like the genesis of genesis. Your first romantic feelings, at an age where simply holding someone’s hand is the end of the world… the world could stop turning and you’d still think it was the most extraordinary thing in the world. When you’re older, holding hands isn’t enough. I thought it was beautiful to go back to that state of quasi-paralysis. In literature, we can easily accept that the narrator changes from chapter to chapter. We can accept that a novel finishes on a completely different story, or that a narrative novel ends with a poem. We accept that stuff in books, but not in cinema. Les démons had that as well, with Pierre-Luc Funk’s character being sort of parachuted into the story. I wanted to play with the narrative structure, and I wanted to try to have that clean break within the movie. I think it also works because otherwise the movie would finish in such a harsh way with Charlotte and Guillaume’s story. As a viewer, I probably would’ve thought it to be quite dark, and I wanted to let a ray of light in there.” ■

Genèse opens in theatres on Friday, March 15. Watch the trailer here: