Genesis (Genèse): An interview with director Philippe Lesage and stars Noée Abita and Théodore Pellerin
Genesis is the follow-up feature film from French-Canadian director Philippe Lesage. It is being shown in competition at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. It stars Noée Abita and Théodore Pellerin as Charlotte and Guillaume, two lovelorn stepsiblings growing up in the wealthy suburbs of Quebec.
We interviewed the two stars and the director soon after the public screening of Genesis at the festival. We spoke to the trio about their new film, sexual politics and the nature of wealth, social class and homophobia.
How much of your experience relates to the film?
PL: It’s everything. I see myself in all the main characters: from [actors] Felix to Théodore to Noée. I started this with The Demons, which was more full frontal. In this one I’m playing more with gender, experiencing the same passion and disappointment and struggle, whether you are a boy or a girl. For the little story, I went to a summer camp and I was completely in love with a girl. And there was a nice guy with a guitar called Todd who looks exactly the same in the film! And I’ve been to an all-boys school where the codes of being a man are incredibly conservative and strict. You need to struggle to win respect. You switch from being bullied to being a bully in order to survive. Some teachers even gave this example, like the history teacher in the film. Everything is real in the film.
Noée and Théodore, does your character reflect your background? How did you prepare for the roles?
NA: I was chosen at the last minute. I see myself in the character because she encounters love and emotions.
TP: The story speaks to me. It’s very universal. The three main characters show a universal feeling and experience. I don’t relate to what he’s going through in particular, but I relate to love. I had a few months before shooting. I lived with the script and talked to the director. I wanted to understand his desire for something sacred, something grand. I understood his romanticism, his belief in a true love.
How does this film consider how men treat women? Does it anticipate current discussions of abuse?
PL: It does in a surprising way because I wrote this script almost three or four years ago. I was sensitive back then to the fact that we were living in a world that doesn’t give space to women, especially in relationships.
NA: Many people are treated in a sexist way. Throughout history women have tried to fight against male violence.
TP: Yes, absolutely. There’s one troubling rape scene, of course. But there are lots of abusers. It’s very insidious. It’s not subtle but we’re used to it. Charlotte gets used to it. It’s important to understand that it’s not normal.
How would you describe the male characters in the film?
NA: The first boyfriend – “the nice guy” – has everything he wants. His parents are rich. It’s relaxed – I can sleep at your place, you can come to me. It’s important and it builds our relationship. The second boyfriend is charming; he’s met through the nightlife when she’s with friends. He’s a funny guy. I don’t think he had bad intentions but it ends up that way.
PL: With the first boyfriend, he is uninterested in Charlotte unless she is interested in his interests. If she’s not interested in his astronomy, his photography, his passions, then his ego isn’t fulfilled. She has the strength to be conscious of that. She meets another guy. She’s not falling stupidly in love, thinking it will last forever. She just wants to have a good time. He’s the sort of guy who won’t show up, or he will go see his ex-girlfriend. It’s so disappointing. And again she doesn’t have any space to be herself. Then comes the horror. A kiss leads to entitlement. Each guy represents an aspect of toxic masculinity.
How does Charlotte’s trajectory mirror Guillaume’s?
NA: They have a power to love, which is too much for the world and they’re hurt right away. They want to go straight ahead and be truthful to themselves and others in a hypocritical world.
How do class and wealth operate in the film?
PL: In Canada I went to a similar kind of college. I’m from the middle class. I was the only one in my class living in an apartment with my family, instead of in a large house. But the world where I evolved was privileged. I had books at home. My parents showed a good example of intellectual curiosity. My parents were always in debt and I was surrounded by richer boys at college. This was the world I was raised in.
What role do you think music plays in the film?
NA: The music is like breathing. It can calm and reassure. It can make you stop, contemplate and enjoy the scenery, especially when Charlotte is in the bar and the girls are singing.
TP: I love music in films. I love what Philippe did for this film. There was a song I really liked when Guillaume leaves the party and puts his earphones in, but I don’t think we could afford it. I won’t tell you what it was so not to disappoint you!
How do you think the third act in the summer camp offsets the central story?
NA: The third part is like taking a breath, letting something go. We’re going back to young love, to pure love. This is what Charlotte and Guillaume want.
TP: It’s so beautiful. It’s like poetry. They still had to say goodbye. It’s not only beautiful – it’s heartbreak.
PL: It’s like a coda in music. As a spectator when I see films I get bored. We have a tendency to be too conventional in the way we tell stories. Narrative structure hasn’t evolved that much since the Greeks. I like to break away from the narrative. I tried that in The Demons. We keep the theme. They’re different characters, different stories. You get into the story and it’s not important to know who is who. It’s before sexual desire. The murmur of first love when it comes is pure and you’re completely disarmed. It was a way to open something. Joy and collectivity is there, but it’s not a perfect world.
Did the director give you any advice on set?
NA: There was room to be spontaneous. But Philippe would correct things. Some of the scenes took at least 40 takes. It was really tiring!
What roles do Charlotte’s friends play?
NA: She is an only child. She parties; she’s happy. Step by step, she’s goes from a young woman into adulthood with Guillaume.
How does homophobia operate in the film?
TP: It’s very accurate for Montreal, let’s say. When Guillaume stands up and declares his love for his friend, everyone applauds him because it’s true and he’s being true to himself. But then people have a discomfort. They don’t know who this guy is anymore; they don’t feel comfortable around him. They don’t hate him; they don’t punch him in the face. That’s why people say that they’re not homophobic but they’re still uncomfortable. That is still homophobia but they don’t understand it. Whereas others in the film are more explicitly homophobic; they think it’s perverted.
PL: In a boy’s school the code is so conservative. You need to belong to a sport club or be a smart-ass bully. Guillaume has a temper. It’s so difficult for him to live in such a world. When you’re a privileged rich kid in college, you’re 15, there’s a good chance you’re going to be a bit fascist. You need to conform. There’s very little space for minority groups. You don’t want to be tagged as that. There’s a lot of white privilege. Your idol is the history teacher who is a strong, charismatic bully. We also had a Dead Poets Society teacher who loved literature but I didn’t include it. There is no way back when you come out and say you are gay. You would be stigmatised from the start. I wondered what would happen if someone charismatic came out. Probably there’s going to be a backlash. He’s a good communicator. He has oratorical skill. But it isn’t enough.
How does Guillaume view his history teacher? As a role model or antagonist?
TP: At first it’s a lot of fun. He’s not like every other teacher. He’s not boring; he’s entertaining. He makes people laugh, but he’s rude and inconsiderate. Guillaume likes him and then realises he’s a bit of an asshole and doesn’t want to be like him.
What does Guillaume get out of reading Salinger?
TP: Resonance. Holden Caulfield is like a stranger to everything. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with things. He feels like everyone is faking things. He’s looking for purity. Guillaume is looking for the same thing. He’s not as proactive at denouncing it, and doesn’t go out drinking as much. He wishes he was a bit more like Holden Caulfield. In Franny and Zooey, Franny prays for a connection to something greater. It’s about believing in love and not being miserable.
Photo: Pier Marco Tacca / Getty Images
Genesis (Genèse) does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Locarno Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Locarno Film Festival website here.