'Genesis' ('Genese'): Film Review | Locarno 2018

Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival
Exciting and heartbreaking, like a true first love.

Noee Abita and Theodore Pellerin are half-siblings wrestling with their first loves in this accomplished feature from French-Canadian director Philippe Lesage ('The Demons').

When you first fall in love, everything else around you seems to melt away and pretty much nothing or no one else seems to exist. In the French-Canadian film Genesis (Genese), about adolescent love, director Philippe Lesage weaves this idea of full-on immediacy and a very blinkered view into the fabric of his storytelling, delivering a film that feels intensely alive and in the moment.

Even though the movie barely provides any backstory or other details, the characters’ emotions are always immediately accessible in this vivid depiction of the all-consuming nature of nascent amour, as well as the pain, heartbreak and confusion that come with trying to channel all these pure emotions into something as structured as your daily life. Hopefully, this accomplished new work will fare better internationally than his phenomenally creepy and well-observed The Demons from 2015, which deserved a wider breakout than it received. Genesis premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival.

For most of its running time, the film is a diptych that goes back and forth between 16-year-old Guillaume (local star Theodore Pellerin) and his half-sister, Charlotte (French actress Noee Abita, Ava), who is a couple of years older. Guillaume goes to a fancy boarding school for boys, where he’s renowned for his comical imitations of his teachers and peers. When he’s not clowning around, however, he broods over things a lot of teens have been brooding over in the last few decades: The Catcher in the Rye and the music of The Smiths. He also looks longingly at his best friend, Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte), who’s completely unaware of how his lanky buddy’s gaze has changed from being friendly to something more. Unrequited love is difficult enough for straight people but there’s possibly an added layer of rejection-related anxiety for queer people, as their object of desire might not only not be into them individually, but they might be completely incompatible in terms of sexual orientation. 

Charlotte is a stage further ahead in her life, as she’s in what’s probably her first serious relationship. But things with Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk, from The Demons) have become so serious that her lover wonders out loud whether they should have an open relationship, a suggestion that sends Charlotte’s ideas of love, fidelity and the future into an immediate tailspin of uncertainty. 

Lesage frequently finds elegant visual solutions to suggest his protagonists’ state of mind, like when Guillaume drifts alone through a tightly packed crowd composed of couples dancing to a slow song, underlining both his loneliness and status as an outsider. And the actors often use body language to suggest something of their perhaps mostly hidden emotional state. After Guillaume has told Nicolas, who’s dancing with a girl, that he wants to leave now, for example, Pellerin hugs Sicotte for just a moment too long. Nicolas clearly reads this as Guillaume being inebriated at the end of the night but for Guillaume it could signal so much more, from him insisting on leaving together at that moment to him feeling alone amid all these couples and needing companionship to a more general message of having fallen in love with Nicolas and desiring close physical contact that could lead to more. 

Canada’s star editor, Mathieu Bouchard-Malo, does a marvelous job of alternating and contrasting the stories of the siblings in a way that feels natural and unforced but simultaneously brings out the underlying connections and themes. Lesage manages to cover a lot of ground here, from an impossible first love — since it seems like Nicolas will never answer Guillaume’s feelings — to the impossible end of a first relationship. The director, who also wrote the screenplay, loves narrative left turns that explore his themes from unexpected angles.

Charlotte’s reaction and subsequent trajectory after having been confronted with the alien idea of an open relationship is thus surprising yet entirely organic, while Guillaume’s first love finds an unexpected echo in the touching story of Alexis (Antoine Marchand-Gagnon), a 14-year-old fellow boarder who recognizes himself in his older but not necessarily wiser schoolmate. How the school authorities deal with this infatuation is particularly telling of the difficulties young queer people face on top of the usual awkwardness associated with coming of age in the amorous travails department. The idea that the acceptance of queer love is happening slowly but hasn’t fully arrived yet is further underlined by how Guillaume’s classmates react to one of the feature’s — and Pellerin’s — most impressive moments, a soul-baring speech that provokes two very different reactions in and out of class. 

If there is one thing that doesn’t work, it is Lesage’s desire to return to his even younger protagonist from The Demons, played by Edouard Tremblay-Grenier, in an unrelated third strand that’s tacked on at the end, after 110 minutes of alternating between the siblings. This section, while certainly touching as a 15-minute short, makes little sense in the context of Genesis as it has too little material to add any insights to the much more complexly handled earlier material. Still, there is no denying his latest feature further bolsters Lesage’s reputation as a director of considerable skill and talent.    

Production company: Productions L’unite centrale
Cast: Noee Abita, Theodore Pellerin, Edouard Tremblay-Grenier, Pier-Luc Funk, Emilie Bierre, Maxime Dumontier, Paul Ahmarani, Jules Roy Sicotte, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon 
Writer-director: Philippe Lesage 
Producer: Galile Marion-Gauvain
Director of photography: Nicolas Canniccioni
Production designer: Marjorie Rheaume
Costume designer: Caroline Bodson
Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Be for Films

In Quebec French
130 minutes