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The Big Screen: Genesis

(Philippe Lesage, Canada, Film Movement, Opening: August 23)

Throughout much of Genesis, the harmful tribulations of young love are kept at a distance. At an all-boys boarding school, Guillaume falls in love with his hunky hockey-star best (and only) friend, Nicolas. Meanwhile, at university, Guillaume’s half-sister Charlotte careens between the hapless Maxime, her entitled boyfriend from high school, and the boorish Théo, an older maybe-musician. Writer-director Philippe Lesage alternates between scenes of Guillaume and Charlotte, taking their romantic explorations seriously and following them to heartbreaking ends. But then the film thrusts viewers into a new story set at an idyllic summer camp, featuring the adolescent Félix, a stand-in for the director himself first seen in Lesage’s debut fiction feature The Demons (2015).

This unusual structure is studiously constructed throughout. Scenes play out in long takes with careful blocking, scored to earwormy alt-pop. Lesage’s reunion with cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni and editor Mathieu Bouchard-Malo explains this observational approach; their last collaboration (without Lesage) was on fellow Québécois mainstay Jean-François Caissy’s documentary First Stripes, a quiet but engaging study of Canadian basic training. But the actual effect of watching Genesis is a bit like whiplash. As Guillaume, Charlotte, and Félix’s lives develop separately with only occasional crossover, this trifurcation sets us up to directly compare their experiences.

In Guillaume’s world, Genesis is scintillating, lambasting the sexism and homophobia of its authority figures while remaining tender toward their teenage charges. Actor Théodore Pellerin’s delicate, long face is equally magnetic in sly triumph at taking down a bullying teacher and in terror and regret after kissing Nicolas. Pellerin’s most impressive scene is Guillaume’s transcendentally doomed confession-slash-paean to Nicolas, made doubly embarrassing in stilted English as a public-speaking class assignment. This masterful setup intensifies its fallout, with Guillaume shunned by classmates and expelled from the school on false allegations of molesting a younger boy.

Lesage is gifted at identifying talented performers and letting them grow over time within his filmmaking; Pellerin is one of several promising actors in Genesis who also had roles in The Demons. But Pellerin has much more robust material to work with compared to Noée Abita (playing Charlotte), who was discovered in Léa Mysius’s Ava. While the boys are busy learning to weaponize misogyny and to police each other’s sexualities, the girls are busy gabbing with each other and not much else; Charlotte’s time with her friends only briefly punctures her pursuit of love. Sometimes their giggly conversations aren’t even subtitled in English, completing their fade into background noise. Abita makes do, ably playing Charlotte as an ingenue reeling from being raped at Théo’s party.

It strikes me, from the film’s attentiveness to how the men around Charlotte are rejected, that her story is supposed to be a lesson to male viewers. Some of the scenes featuring Charlotte, such as Maxime’s futile and underprepared picnic to win her back, are astonishingly true in their assertion that dating is terrible for today’s young women. And her assault could be viewed as a statement about what happens to women in our sexist society. But why does her character remain stubbornly vague? Guillaume has a way with words (imitations are his forte), while Charlotte is often a silent muse for her amateur photographer boyfriend.

The title unfortunately could justify this gendered inequity: calcified readings of the biblical book of Genesis affirm female submission. But there are more egalitarian interpretations of the Old Testament. Similarly, the film Genesis smartly ends with Félix’s candyfloss romance with fellow camper Béatrice. Either Félix and Béatrice are living in Edenic innocence and Guillaume and Charlotte’s tragedies are visions of their inevitable future—or we can choose to repackage the preceding events and treat this third thread as a hopeful, karmic reboot.

Abby Sun is a freelance programmer and critic.