'The Demons' ('Les Demons'): San Sebastian Review

The Demons - H 2015
Courtesy of Be For Films
Potently troubling drama about the seeds of evil.

Philippe Lesage's film is a sensitive 10-year-old’s troubling take on adult cruelty in suburban Montreal.

The doubts, fears, and yes, horrors of life beneath the comfortable surface of a Montreal suburb are subjected to the quizzical, pained gaze of a sensitive 10-year-old in Philippe Lesage’s laconic, unsettling The Demons. Via cool observation, a studied but not glacial pace, and a troubling yet compelling atmosphere of permanent unease, this rewarding, thoughtful second feature from an erstwhile documentary maker blessed with a coolly quizzical eye asks major questions about what kind of world our paranoid, neurotic society is making for its children. Festival audiences should warm to this study of the demons within and outside us, with sales pickups for discerning art house viewers also a possibility.

A couple of references, to AIDS particularly, suggest that The Demons is 80s-set, meaning that its juvenile subjects, perhaps including Lesage himself, are about now starting to unleash their inner demons onto their own kids, bless 'em. Ten-year-old Felix (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier), apparently out of place everywhere, experiences the world as a fundamentally scary place: most of the action of the film’s first half is seen through his eyes, so the viewer starts to experience the world of The Demons in the same way.

Mainly Felix is fearful that his parents, Claire (Pascale Bussieres) and Marc (Laurent Lucas) will break up. He watches Marc and the mother of his friend Mathieu (Yannick Gobeil-Dugas), bonding over Robert Johnson blues songs, and then he witnesses, early on, a terrifying (for the viewer, too) row between Claire and Marc. He’s scared, too, of the nasty rumors about the terrible things his brother Francois (Vassili Schneider) and his buddies tell about the bad things happening to the neighborhood kids. And it doesn’t help that he has a crush on his physical instruction teacher, Rebecca (Victoria Diamond).

But he’s adored by his brother and sister Emmanuelle (Sarah Mottet), with whom he tearfully shares the news, from inside his wardrobe, that he thinks he has AIDS. "Did an adult do something to you to make you think that?" she unhelpfully murmurs back, unaware of the power of suggestion to an impressionable young mind, and unaware that in 20 years’ time, a generation of bourgeois parents will be planting such bad seeds in little minds all over the western world.

But, having observed the behavior of grown ups to one another, Felix is capable of a little mixed-up cruelty himself, as when he locks smaller, scrawnier Alexandre (Alfred Poirier) into a swimming pool locker. For Lesage, the swimming pool which is the focus of so much of The Demons is a place of joy, of danger, of eroticism and of much else. Sure enough, the second, very differently-focused section of the film begins with swimming instructor Ben (Pier-Luc Funk), in this scene intriguingly shot from the neck down, finding a pair of boys’ shorts and furtively pocketing them. Ben moves center stage for the film’s gut-churning second half, where the darkness which has so far only been hinted at will come shockingly — but non-judgmentally — to the fore.

Lesage creates this sense of uneasy disturbance much as Michael Haneke does, simply by watching implacably and waiting for carefully chosen details to flicker out and betray the truth: this might indeed be a companion piece to Haneke’s study of the seeds of fascist evil, The White Ribbon. An oh-so-slow zoom is used to lead the uncomfortable viewer to the true focus of several complex, carefully-staged scenarios. In one kind of viewer, this might creates boredom, but here it creates a heightened sense of what lies beneath.

Lesage’s disturbingly ambiguous vision means, for example, that many of the lengthy shots of children at play, often at pool, can be interpreted in several different ways — as images of unselfconscious happiness, of happiness under threat, and indeed of a future in which all of this happiness will have been distorted and demonized into another generation of parents who will inevitably screw up their own children.

The Demons shows a catholic taste in music and Sibelius and Bach are brought in to accompany blues maestro Johnson to striking and satisfying effect. But best of all is Miriam Makeba’s 1967 classic "Pata Pata," to which Felix, Francois and Emmanuelle dance as though to remind us that, despite the demons always at work within, the liberating and spontaneous joy of childhood is still there to be had.

Production companies: Productions Les Films De L’autre, Productions L’unite

Cast: Edouard Tremblay-Grenier, Pier-Luc Funk, Yannick Gobeil-Dugas, Vassili Schneider, Sarah Mottet, Patrick Mathis, Victoria Diamond, Laurent Lucas, Alfred Poirier, Milya Corbeille-Gauvreau, Rose-Marie Perreault

Director, screenwriter: Philippe Lesage

Producers: Galile Marion-Gauvin, Philippe Lesage

Director of photography: Nicolas Canniccioni

Production designer: Marjorie Rheaume

Costume designer: Caroline Bodson

Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo

Composer: Pye Corner Audio

Sales: Be For Films