Despite the autobiographical elements that run through Philippe Lesage’s narrative feature films, he tends to observe his typically young subjects with an anthropological sense of steely detachment, allowing the Canadian director to map out the coming of age process without indulging in the same schmaltzy and solipsistic tendencies of many a teen drama. Better yet, Lesage exhibits the formal rigor and patience to back up his serious-minded approach, meaning that even when Genèse falls short of the ambitions suggested in its novel structure, the prowess of its craft still offers much to please the eye. And when everything clicks, this keen-eyed study of young love and lust amounts to a richly insightful and engrossingly empathetic character study-cum-social commentary.
The journey of Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin), in particular, is a poignant tale of self-discovery within an oppressively boyish ecosystem. This cocky young man is at the top of his social ladder in a single-sex school where even the staff members crack masturbation jokes and derisively refer to their students as “girls.” Guillaume himself follows the lead of his teachers by constantly heaping ridicule on his classmates in an implicitly aggressive manner that’s quickly shown to be a cover for his own insecurities.
Even Guillaume’s scornful teacher, Mr. Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), admits that Guillaume exhibits a gift for gab that suggests he’ll fare well with the opposite sex. What Perrier doesn’t realize, however, is that the young man’s way with words deteriorates considerably whenever any actual women enter the picture. A scene where Guillaume wanders self-consciously through a party where almost everyone has scored but him goes some way to explaining his snarky persona, echoing one character’s observation that a shark bites humans out of curiosity because it doesn’t have any arms. Antagonism is the natural fallback for a boy of limited social vocabulary, but the deeper roots of his domineering behavior are revealed when Guillaume attempts to shed his cynical exterior and pursue his newfound feelings for his best friend, Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte), in spite of the hostility he risks attracting.
On paper, Guillaume’s story functions as one half of a two-pronged narrative that’s completed by his stepsister Charlotte’s arc. In execution, however, Charlotte’s journey comes across as the more vaguely realized B-plot to her male counterpart’s A-plot, proving the less fruitful of the pair in its social and psychological insight, as well as all-round dramatic clout. But aside from a shocking turn at its climax that doesn’t feel entirely earned, this parallel tale proves compelling enough in its own right, while also serving to expand and enrich the notions of masculinity and sexuality explored in Guillaume’s arc.
Unlike her younger brother, Charlotte is sexually active, but no less lonely and conflicted for it. The problems start when her boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), suggests the possibility an open relationship, but while he quickly regrets his words, Charlotte follows through on the idea and begins hooking up with an older man. Maxime’s proposal of free love really blows up in his face, however, when Charlotte decides that she likes her new lover more, reducing her boyfriend to a sobbing mess on the floor when she dumps him. Nonetheless, Charlotte soon begins to have regrets of her own once her older partner shows himself to be condescending and neglectful, not to mention insultingly lazy in his attempts to cover up his involvement with other women (one quick booty call sees him stop by a lover’s house while Charlotte’s left waiting in the car).
The tumultuous vision of youth evoked by Charlotte and Guillaume’s combined trajectories finds its own counterpoint in an extended coda, which sees the return of a character from Lesage’s excellent 2015 drama The Demons for a simpler, more optimistic, though still bittersweet account of first love. Observing a moment in the naïve early years of adolescence when sex is a far-off and somewhat frightening concept, this supplementary segment may not have a lot to say that wasn’t implicit in the film’s first two stories, but still serves as an amiable take on a familiar tale of summer camp romance, even if the passage is more memorable for the subversion of conventional structure it represents than its actual content.
Perhaps the issue here is that after nearly two unsentimental hours of intriguingly messy emotion, the relative purity of the film’s final stretch feels like a regression in more ways than planned. But while Genèse may not exceed the sum of its parts to the intended extent, Lesage has once more proven himself to be an astute chronicler of personal growth in those turbulent and anxiety-ridden years where the mind and the body are as mysterious as they are vulnerable.