Charlotte Lebon’s feature debut, Falcon Lake, is a sensitive look at a pair of teenagers caught between childhood and adulthood, friendship and romance.
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Writer-director (and sometimes actor) Charlotte Lebon’s feature debut, Falcon Lake, opens like a horror movie. An eerie score overlays a family’s quiet journey into the dark green woods, and then we follow them into a pitch black, empty cottage. The family hail from Paris and are visiting friends in cottage country Quebec for a couple of weeks. Over the course of their trip, Parisian fourteen-year-old Bastien (Joseph Engel) and the sixteen-year-old daughter of their host, Chloé (an excellent Sara Montpetit, last seen in Maria Chapdelaine), form a tentative and fleeting romantic relationship. The film isn’t actually a horror movie, except inasmuch as being an adolescent, and an adolescent experiencing sexual desire, is a constant horror show. But Lebon plays with genre conventions. Bastien is constantly getting jump scares, every time Chloé suddenly invades his space or leaves it. Chloé often thinks about the recent death of a girl on the lake and the idea of ghosts, often even donning a ghost costume herself.
Much like Orla Smith wrote of Céline Sciamma’s work in our ebook Portraits of resistance, Falcon Lake is a film in which the object of desire, Chloé, looks back. She’s first glimpsed in a private moment in the film’s opening: emerging from the lake gasping for air after lying face down in the water, looking dead. It’s a foreboding and lonely image, which befits a girl who spends the film contemplating mortality, playing with a ghost costume, and who is often lonely because her single mother is too busy courting a new beau. She’s intriguing but not really understood by those around her, and Lebon immediately makes us want to know who she is.
Though we spend more time gazing at Chloé from Bastien’s perspective, Montpetit and Lebon regularly reveal Chloé’s vulnerability and openness. This is perhaps never more true than the many times when Chloé exits Bastien’s frame in a hurry to hang with the older kids, only for her voice to invade the frame, beckoning him to join her. The choice to bookend the film with Chloé’s face also asks us to reexamine who the central figure of the story is: Bastien, whose side we rarely leave, or Chloé, who is going through something a bit more complicated.
At fourteen, Bastien is right on the threshold between adulthood and childhood. His biggest fear is being caught masturbating by his parents. He immediately notices Chloé’s more developed body, her swimsuit highlighting her curves, and mature air. But he still plays with his younger brother, hangs with his parents, can’t hold his liquor, and feels ill-at-ease at teenage parties. Chloé may smoke, drink alcohol, and be excited by the interest of even older teenagers, but she’s just as caught in between these two stages of life.
When Chloé and Bastien are together, they flip-flop between playing childish games — doing puzzles with his younger brother, play-fighting on the beach — and slightly more adult ones. Yet many times when they are close, touching even, when you might expect it to turn sexual, it stays romantic, but chaste. The pair are sharing a room with Bastien’s younger brother, and when Chloé invites him into her bed one night so they can talk without waking the young one, it’s simultaneously like having a childhood sleepover and something more. What we know and Chloé doesn’t is that Bastien isn’t wearing underwear (he woke up from a wet dream and was in the middle of trying to change when she got home), which heightens the tension for him without actually becoming an issue. Their exchange is of tenderness and affection, not sexual favours.
An unnuanced reading of the film might describe Chloé as playing hot and cold with Bastien — teasing him with a glimpse of her breasts one minute, and disappearing to hang out with other boys the next. But she’s a girl in conflict, and Bastien is perceptive enough to understand this, even if he still gets hurt by it — and sometimes makes thoughtless decisions to make things worse. At the beach, in a bikini, Chloé’s newfound curves are on display, and yet she regularly chooses to cover herself with baggy t-shirts, not yet ready for or desiring the leering attention that not doing so might bring. She’s afraid to admit to Bastien that she hasn’t had sex, and initially lies about it, but he’s sweet and a good listener, so she quickly admits that her ex-boyfriend pressured her and when she said no, they broke up. Choosing to unfold herself like this to Bastien means he understands early on that it’s not for him to push their sexual explorations further; the ball is in her court.
I’m not sure if even Chloé knows how far she wants to take things with Bastien, what she’s ready for, what she wants, or why she’s doing it. That’s the point. There’s affection and attraction, but between hormones and trauma, she’s not quite sure what to do. When Bastien vomits after too much drinking, Chloé uses it as an excuse to hop in the bath with him (both in bathing suits) to clean him up. Lebon stays with Bastien, so we feel the anticipation of Chloé getting closer and entering the frame. But we also understand that Chloé is tentatively toying with boundaries.
In the last couple of years, the academy ratio has become de rigueur for filmmakers looking to prove their auteurist status. But Lebon is one of the few filmmakers who really uses the aspect ratio, designed for portraits, well. The camera mostly sticks with Bastien in the middle of the frame. The narrow frame means we notice every invasion. When Chloé’s arm reaches in to touch his shoulder, we feel the electric charge of it as much as he does. When the older teenagers’ feet show up in the back of the frame to whisk Chloé away to a cooler, better offer of company, we, like Bastien, feel like they’re trespassing on his space because they’re trespassing on his frame. It also serves to heighten the intimacy of the always evolving connection between Bastien and Chloé. They either have to be very close to one another to appear in a closeup two-shot, or the camera has to be very far away to show both of their bodies in the landscape, the two of them alone against the world.
For Bastien, Chloé often feels like an elusive figure. Lebon complicates this: does Chloé want to leave Bastien for company that will still be around in a few weeks, or does she never intend to leave him behind despite the moment or two of loss he may feel? Chloé is looking for attention and hiding from it, looking for affection, but not sure what kind. Ultimately, Bastien is a fairly reactive and passive character: always there when Chloé wants him, but too insecure to push their friendship, and too inexperienced and respectful to push their romantic potential forward. He’s constantly surprised by what Chloé will do. Chloé, by contrast, is active, conflicted, and drives the narrative. Bastien may take centre frame in the film, but this is Chloé’s Falcon Lake.