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.
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.
7R: Music plays an important role in the film. Can you explain why it plays such a big part in adolescence?
PL: It’s around the age where you start to build the soundtrack of your life. It’s when you discover that masochistic joy, as a teen, when music becomes the salt you can put on the wounds. You start to feel sorry for yourself and your terrible existence while listening to some lamentation from Radiohead or whatever. You start to feel the joy of melancholy.
7R: What was the experience like going to an all-boys school? How did you get everyone on the same page about what the culture was like?
PL: Théodore actually spent a couple of days in an all-boys school for the film. They still exist, but they’re slowly disappearing. I went to an all-boys school. When I see my former classmates, they seem to have good memories about it… but I don’t really agree with that. I wouldn’t, if I had kids, ever send them to an all-boys school.
The gender stereotypes are very strong because it’s even more conservative when you only have boys together, especially in a privileged environment. Almost every bourgeois teen boy going into an all-boys school will probably be a little bit of a fascist. He’s going to value strength, conformity, and elitism.
Besides that, you have these very strong friendships with almost the intensity of love relationships. Some of my classmates developed feelings for each other, without meaning that they’re homosexual, but just because of the closeness of the environment. Guillaume is developing this passion that completely goes against the current of this conservative place.
Teachers were always trying to box us into gender stereotypes. [In the film], the teacher says, “You’re going to see when you grow up; you’re going to like these kinds of girls.” We were told things like that by teachers. I have no memories of anybody coming out; I’m sure there were gay students in my school, but it was a completely homophobic environment.
7R: Was it a religious school, as well?
PL: It used to be; it was secular when I went. It had Jesuits, but they were nice; they were not what we think of now… the secular teachers were more bizarre. The weird stuff was coming from them.
I have a feeling that, nowadays, parents control the teachers. There is clientelism, and schools really want to satisfy the clients. In the ‘90s, when I was a teen, the parents trusted the school, and the school took care of everything. It was the parents who wanted to please the teacher. Now, it’s the other way around.
7R: Are you working on any new projects? Anything that you can talk about.
PL: It’s a perception of a teen, sixteen/seventeen again, but in the adult world and its dynamics of power. It’s really about the adults this time and trying to destroy the myth of masculinity, which is still very strong still in Quebec. The image of the strongman, being virile and macho, and not showing emotions, is still very powerful. I’m fed up with it. That’s why I attack that myth.
Of course, we haven’t spoken about the Charlotte story!
7R: Do you want to talk about?
PL: I want to talk about it because it’s probably the most controversial aspect of the film!
In the film, her character is surrounded by men who do not leave her space to be herself. The first boyfriend, if it’s not in his interest, he’s not interested in her. I’m very critical of the way men are with women sometimes, and there’s some self-critique in that… then, when she meets the other guy, it’s the same. Every time she has the possibility to be happy and feel free with a guy, he comes with disappointment and deception.
A couple of years ago, I felt stupid when I realized that at least one out of two women close to me has had bad experiences that were or were close to sexual aggression. Their stories were always banal, that banality of evil. How come I was so blind when it was present all over? I was very sensitive to what they were telling me.
I had discussions with a couple of them; I think that I wanted to address the issue directly. Showing, sometimes, is a way to denounce. I want to show the world as it is, and these things are happening. I’m not going to spare the viewer by not showing them things that they don’t want to see because it’s too harsh. For me, it was extremely important to show it.
You have to be in bad faith not to see the compassion for my characters. I’m not a sadist who wants to torture a woman during my film. You can find a lot of films that are doing that; I’m not.