Philippe Lesage discusses Genèse, a coming-of-age story about searching for love in a repressive, violent adult world, and bringing the spirit of a novel into filmmaking. This is an excerpt from the ebook The Canadian Cinema Yearbook which is available for purchase here.
In a whirlwind of emotions, our teenage years are dominated by the weight of the moment; nothing seems more important than what is happening right now. Perspective is lost in the formation of identities, and just as we’ve moved past childhood, we begin to enter the mysterious world of adults.
Philippe Lesage’s new film, Genèse, exists in a transient emotional landscape, examining the parallel fates of a brother and sister, Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and Charlotte (Noée Abita), who are navigating love and identity in their late adolescence. While, on the surface, this is a traditional coming-of-age tale, a melodrama of hormonal lust and self-discovery, it abandons traditional point A to point B storytelling.
One of the ways that Lesage does this is by re-introducing Félix — the protagonist of his earlier film Les Démons, which we also interviewed Lesage about— in the third act, who is at summer camp. After we’ve been taken on a tumultuous adolescent journey for two thirds of the film, the final sequence shifts to a story of pre-adolescence, a period of innocence and beauty. For Félix, who struggled with the loneliness of his early puberty and a broken home, the summer camp serves as an awakening that occurs at a remove from the cruelty of the adult world.
Lesage’s work treats both children and teenagers as sexual beings, curious about relationships they themselves are not yet able to fully understand. Structuring Genèse, in particular, along gendered lines unveils the oppressiveness of gender binaries that imposes restrictions and invites violence into young people’s lives. Society weaponizes shame, power, and conformity to ultimately punish both Charlotte and Guillaume for their natural curiosity and desires.
Motivated by love rather than self-loathing, Guillaume and Charlotte’s idealism is corrupted in a cynical world. In spite of the rich sensorial experience of the world created in Genèse, Lesage treats the violence of the world we live in with a mundane banality. This is especially apparent in the film’s controversial sexual assault that happens towards the end of Charlotte’s story. Drunk and alone at her older ex-boyfriend’s house party, Charlotte is raped in a back alley in the rain. She and her aggressor return to the party as if it never happened. The violence is upsettingly casual, but there is more truth in that off-hand treatment than not. It is horrifying because it is par for the course. Similarly, Guillaume’s non-heteronormative confessions of love lead to his ostracization, another form of violence, within the strict confines of his all-boys boarding school.
Watching the film gave me permission to forgive my younger self for impulses and affections I had always viewed as self-destructive because they invited vultures into my life who took advantage of my inexperience. I always thought I must be stupid to allow myself to be hurt, but now I realize that this is what happens to young people in search of love and validation in a repressive adult world. The systematic gatekeepers of conformity, be it the educational system or the patriarchy, seek to punish those who transgress against social expectations and maintain already established power dynamics.
Philippe Lesage discussed his inspirations for Genèse, the filmmaking process, and the film’s most controversial moment.
Seventh Row (7R): There are a number of references to J.D. Salinger in the film. What is the influence of his writing on your work?
Philippe Lesage (PL): When I was 20, I was a big fan of American literature. I was doing my degree in literature at McGill University. I discovered J.D. Salinger, but I was also into Raymond Carver’s short stories, and then I fell into William Faulkner. That had a huge impact on me.
At that point, I was flirting with the idea of maybe becoming a writer. I had a feeling, when I was reading those novels, that I was living in them somehow. Those characters lived inside of me for a long time, too. That’s the beauty of literature: it drags you into an interiority, which is very rare to experience in a film because you spend less time watching a film than reading a book.
It nourished my interior life, and it was a nice way to give interiority to the character of Guillaume because he’s this clown fooling around in the classroom being a smart-ass. Then we realize that he is reflective and that he’s reading on his own.
My young characters are struggling for their integrity and freedom, following their passions without being afraid of getting hurt; those are some of Salinger’s themes. That’s why I admire them so much. Also, I do believe, as they say in the film, that Franny and Zooey is better than Catcher in the Rye!
7R: I’ve recently been following discussions about the idea of filmed literature as a bad thing. Your approach is literary in a way that gives space to thoughts, and that interiority.
PL: I went to watch the new Carlos Reygadas, and he said that!
7R: That’s where I started thinking of the idea.
PL: I was thinking that we don’t have the same conception of literature at all. For me, literature is much more freeing than filmmaking in the way we tell stories. It influences my way of seeing. In a novel, you can switch characters and narrator; Faulkner is famous for that. In literature, you have permission to make digressions, more so than in a film. Why would you accept that in a book but not in filmmaking? That’s why I’m trying to play with structure.
Storytelling has not really evolved much since the Greeks. Visual art has been continuously transforming. Maybe it’s the influence of theatre, but filmmaking is stuck in conventions that are difficult to break down. The curiosity of the audience, I think, is becoming alienated by consumer-driven products that encourage you to just turn off your brain. We’ve become lazier, as viewers, so it’s even riskier to start to play with it, but playing with the structure is very stimulating. I was inspired by these people who are doing very deconstructive things or just trying to tell the story in a different way than we are used to.
When I talk about the interiority of the characters, it’s the same. I’m very concerned about creating characters that have inner lives. What you see in the film is what you feel when you read a good book: there’s something strong going on in the characters.
PL: It’s like working with a brother; we’ve done so many films together. I’m always in the editing suite. My favourite part is editing, and it’s partially because of him. There is loneliness in writing, which I also really like; writing and editing are my favourite parts of filmmaking. Shooting is the “mal nécéssaire,” the necessary evil because it’s where everything becomes a struggle. It is a struggle to work as artists and to bring everyone together in the same direction to fulfill a vision. It is, of course, very rich and fulfilling to have this collaboration, as well, but you still need to bring the ball back to the court without hitting any icebergs along the way. It’s stressful. I like it, but it’s just not my favourite part.
With Mathieu, because of his personality and because we know each other, I find myself in the position as a writer working with this co-writer, trying to bring the material to its maximum potential. That’s maybe why I enjoy it so much. It’s three months that goes by very fast.
Of course, you have moments when you’re blocked where things aren’t working, but it’s definitely the best part. When you put the music that you were imagining when you’re writing, and you realize that it’s working, you get goosebumps. One of my greatest joys in life is when those moments happen.
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.