La déesse des mouches à feu

Quebec women directors working wonders with the coming of age genre

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s adaptation of Geneviève Pettersen’s La déesse des mouches à feu is frank and honest, with one outstanding failure.

Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s adaptation of Geneviève Pettersen’s novel La déesse des mouches à feu follows a succession of strong coming of age film by Quebec women directors.

“I have read the book and the adaptation is not as good as the book” is, I think, one of the dumbest possible critical stances to take. Books, for one, are not movies; if your only critical measure for adaptation is how much of the book makes it into the movie, you’re likely to be disappointed every time. The storytelling format of a movie is markedly different from a book. A book allows you to do so much more while also allowing you to imagine as much of what you read about as you want. That’s not to say, of course, that books are automatically better than movies — but there is always more book than there is movie. This is inevitable. To adapt a book (or to watch an adaptation of a beloved book) is to automatically assume that you will have to grieve elements of the book in the finished film. Therefore, there is almost no value in evaluating a film in comparison to the book that inspired it.

With that out of the way, let me soundly ignore all of this and explain to you why Anais Barbeau-Lavalette’s La déesse des mouches à feu is inferior to the book.

I don’t read nearly as much as I should, and that goes double for fiction and double that for Quebec literature. A lot of that is on me. One thing that I have read, however, is Geneviève Pettersen’s 2014 novel La déesse des mouches à feu. I read it, I’ll admit, for fairly selfish reasons; Pettersen is from Saguenay, as am I, and is roughly my age — which means that for the first time in my entire life, someone was writing about a teenage experience that was very closely related to mine. Granted, the specifics are not exactly the same (the ages don’t line up, for one), but for the first time in my life, I heard characters that said the things and did the things I did when growing up (although there is a lot more sex and a lot less setting things on fire in the book than in my life).

The broad lines of La déesse des mouches à feu haven’t changed much in the adaptation. Catherine (Kelly Depeault) is a 16-year-old who lives with her parents (Normand d’Amour and Caroline Néron) in Chicoutimi. As the film opens, Catherine’s parents are going through the rough patch to end all rough patches, one that ends with her father storming out and totalling his jeep at the end of the driveway. Her parents separated, Catherine winds up living in a much smaller home with her emotionally bruised mother while her father tries to buy her love with intermittent $1,000 cheques. A pretty by-the-book teenager before the separation, Catherine falls in with the cool, grunge-loving kids at school — the skaters and dopers whose parents have also seemingly left them to their own desserts. Catherine starts doing drugs, having sex and being pulled deeper and deeper into the hermetic world where nothing seems to have any consequences. 

La déesse des mouches à feu
La déesse des mouches à feu by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

Though the film is explicitly set in Chicoutimi and was partially shot there, it seems that Catherine Léger’s script mostly excises the specifics of the book. Much of the colourful slang is absent (and what little makes it in has, to my great dismay, mostly been mispronounced by the non-Saguenéen actors) and specific references more or less removed to give the film a more universal setting. All of this is understandable from a practical standpoint, of course. It’s unlikely that you can cast an entire film with teenagers who are both good enough actors and have natural Saguenay accents (which, for the uninitiated, are both easy to mock and rather difficult to master) and it’s definitely more practical to shoot the film elsewhere considering how most of the film is either set in a hunting camp, a school or various apartments and basements. I understand why the film has chosen to leave behind those elements, but their absence sands off some of the appeal of the story. Without the sense of time and place that’s so obvious and driving in the novel, La déesse des mouches à feu becomes a significantly more generic coming-of-age story.

That having been said, there’s nothing really wrong with the final product. The latest in a line of above-average coming-of-age stories from Quebec women directors (Jeune Juliette, Une colonie, Kuessipan and Charlotte a du fun all qualify), La déesse…suffers slightly from a proximity to all of these films, but it manages to forge its own path. The thing about adolescence is that it’s both a unique experience and a nearly universal one. The feelings of angst and rage that one inevitably feels as a teenager are so intense because they’re ours, and we have trouble extracting ourselves from them. (A teenager feeling misunderstood by every other teenager — all of whom share that exact feeling of alienation — is the most succinct example of that.) 

In that sense, La déesse traces a nuanced (if somewhat repetitive) portrait of teenage free-fall that’s pretty far removed from the most dramatic impulses of the genre. (Early on, Catherine receives a copy of Christiane F., the sort of blueprint for after-school-special-level excess when it comes to tales of teenage excess — which is certainly not a coincidence.) The partying and perpetual numbing of the senses that Catherine indulges in is worrisome from a parental perspective but not really outlandish in context. For all of her father’s bellowed concerns that she’ll end up on the street selling her body, one never gets the sense that Catherine’s story is meant as a cautionary tale. The film’s structure becomes rather poky in the middle as it essentially devolves into a series of parties, sexual experimentation and uninformed decisions — the intention, most likely, is to numb the viewer as it numbs the protagonist — but Barbeau-Lavallette’s sensitive camerawork and frank approach to the material prevents it from verging into edgy provocation.

Honesty is, above all, the one thing that needed to be ported over from Pettersen’s novel. Though fairly rote on the surface (one assumes Catherine — and, thus, Pettersen herself — is not the only teenage girl to have had a rough 1995), the story has an even-keeled approach to its different moving parts. Lean a little too much in one direction, you’ve got an after-school special; lean a little too much in the other, you’ve got a less-pervy (which isn’t saying much) retread of Larry Clark’s Kids. A lot of La déesse in this current form rests on the shoulders of Depeault, who’s extremely convincing as both a “corrupted” innocent and an insufferable teenage shithead in the most traditional mold. It’s true of pretty much every protagonist in the list I mentioned above, which doesn’t make it less true in this case: Catherine comes across as a fully formed teenager, whatever that entails.

Nevertheless, there seems to be something of a missed opportunity to the proceedings here. Too much of La déesse des mouches à feu seems familiar, whether or not the slang the characters are throwing around matches your memories. It’s a film with a lot to say but with a certain conservatism to the way it chooses to say it — a film that very much seems to match Catherine in the early stages, where she pretends to know what the cool kids are talking about, only to step directly into their traps. Torn between what it could be and what it “needs” to be, it settles for decent but familiar. ■

La déesse des mouches à feu opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 25.

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