Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 05, 2016 6:41 am 
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Haneke lite

French Canada has produced a notable new cinematic talent in the person of documentary-trained director Philippe Lesage, whose second feature (but the first to be shown) is a stunning, original display of the horrors and beauties of everyday life as experienced by ten-year-old Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), youngest of three in a comfortable Montreal family. Lesage makes skillful use of the era when he was growing up, when AIDS was a new terror, kids didn't have cell phones for easy contact with parents, and you couldn't check up on things on the Internet. He also makes use of an unusual circular structure, where things turn from pleasant to to awful and back to pleasant again, which is hard to take, but still works. He also works well with the sunny, candy-colored images and dramatic depth of field produced by his cinematographer, Nicolas Canniccioni; and with iconic music ranging from Bach to Robert Johnson blues to Sibelius to Miriam Makeba.

Félix's soft face and well-cut mop of hair suggest a comfortable background, and he's much loved by his two older siblings, François (Vassali Schneider) and sister Emmanuelle (Sarah Mottet). But there are plenty of complications. He's in love with his young gym teacher Rébecca (Victoria Diamond). He's afraid his parents may be breaking up. Sex play with a boy and a story heard in class make him fear he's got AIDS. There are horrible fake tales told by an older boy of things happening to neighbor children and there really are kidnappings and disappearances of kids. Félix is sensitive and gets afraid at night sometimes, and he seems to get chosen last for teams.

The way Lesage shows Félix sliding down a stairwell to eavesdrop on adults at night, and then climbing upside down around on the sofa later investigating what they were doing, speaks volumes in child-awareness. Canniccioni's long shots and shallow focus subtly combine a sense of intimacy and a sense of powerlessness. The film's excellence at depicting group action is key to our sense of this combination. As Guy Lodge observes in his Variety review, Lesage shrewdly avoids first-person point of view, "however intimate the film’s sense of a character’s inner workings."

This makes possible a leap midway in the film's two hours, when Lesage takes a big chance by not only delivering real horror awfully late, but switching to another, older character. This is a passage that is not only beyond repugnant and disturbing, but may seem off-topic. But it works, because the character has already been integrated so thoroughly into events -- with cruel irony, though a predator, his job puts him close to the kids -- and in the way things return neatly to the everyday and to Félix thereafter. And it's all rounded by bobbing figures, early and late, accompanied by Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion" -- a visual and musical rhythm that's genius and that I won't forget. Nor will I forget Félix and his siblings struggling from room to room in the house trying to stop their parents (Laurent Lucas, Pascale Bussières) from having a terrible row; or a pretty, abstract, nightmare carnival; nor a forest treasure hunt. Lesage melds some memorable narrative turns with a distinctive style, look, sound, and pace.

Lesage's slow buildup of dread suggests Michael Haneke. Jonathan Holland in Hollywood Reporter points out the Canadian creates "a sense of uneasy disturbance much as Michael Haneke does, simply by watching implacably and waiting for carefully chosen details to flicker out and betray the truth." He suggests "this might indeed be a companion piece to Haneke’s study of the seeds of fascist evil, The White Ribbon" (though Lesage is working in a brighter, more pastel palette; indeed Guy Lodge says Lesage's balance of "good-humored humanism with a formal sangfroid" is "suggestive of a summer-brightened Haneke"). Well, if serious comparisons with Haneke are in order, we may have a formidable new talent on our hands.

The Demons/Les Démons, 118 mins., debuted at San Sebastian Sept. 2015. Theatrical release in Canada in Oct. 2015; coming in France 14 Sept. 2016. Five other festivals, including San Francisco (28 Apr. 2016), where it was screened for this review.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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