The Quebec-born film director and screenwriter Philippe Lesage has had an ongoing love story with Denmark for years. Earlier he taught at the European Film College, Ebeltoft, and in 2016 he took CPH PIX by storm with his homage to the Danish capital in the feature film ’Copenhague – A Love Story’.
His latest film, the vital and melancholic coming-of-age drama ’Genesis’, has already gained praise at Locarno Film Festival, and was shortlisted for this year’s Audience Award at CPH PIX. Although set in Canada, the film contains several references to Danish culture and pays tribute to Nils Malmros’ ’Tree of Knowledge’.
Learn more about ’Genesis’ and Lesage’s Danish love story in the interview below, and catch the last screening of 'Genesis' on Wednesday 10 October at Gloria 21.15.
CPH PIX: Just to start off, can you briefly tell us what the film concerns?
Philippe Lesage: Well, I come from the documentary world. And in my work as a documentarist and in the realm of documentaries, I’ve always been interested in fields that were completely new or strange to me, but that still contained something personal. Or related to it. For instance, I did a film about life in a hospital, and I’m a notorious hypochondriac. When I finally had the opportunity to make a fiction film (and when I felt like the institutions that subsided cinema trusted me enough), I realised I wanted to do something very personal, instead of proceeding as an ‘outside’ observer. So I turned the camera inwards and went into childhood memories. I wrote something that is properly very therapeutic. I wrote a film about children’s fears, which is a safe way to put it, but I realised it was really about a kid discovering his or her own sexuality and being afraid of it. I continued with that autobiographical vein and found it natural to steal the most material from my own life or from the people I’ve known well and loved very much. And that was the birth of ‘Genesis’. And the character of ‘The Demons’ comes back in the film too. He is my young alter ego.
The choice to go with two main characters, the boy and the girl, is unique to the film too. How do you think these two characters compliment each other? Why do we hear both stories?
I found it interesting to dwell on this kind of sibling love that connected the characters even though there is only one scene in the film with both of them. There is even an aspect of Charlie Brown in the limited sense that I show the adults of the film. We don’t even see faces of the parents so I simply focus on this one link the two characters have together.
You already touched on the decision to make a story that is different in terms of time, place and characters, suddenly take over the narrative towards the end. Can you elaborate some more on this choice?
I like to play with structure. Sometimes when we create it’s a ‘reaction’ to something. It’s not my main motivation when I make films, but I want to make films that I want to watch myself. I easily get bored as a viewer because the structure is so conventional in so many films. It doesn’t surprise you at all. In a sense I don’t think that the way we tell stories and construct narratives has evolved much since the Greeks. Only few directors play with structure in that sense and attempt to break the codes of narrative. So I reacted against conventions of cinema, but I also found it very organic to the film. It caused a kind of poetic elevation at the end. And I knew the viewer would ask himself a lot of questions at the end.
I’ll allow myself a bit of interpretation regarding the end: it refers to the title ‘Genesis’, denoting origin or creation. Does the end signify the genesis of love between the characters?
I don’t want to provide the viewer with an interpretation, I want to make a kind of film that leaves it up to the viewer to make his own interpretation. I thought it was interesting to go back to a point in time a couple of years earlier when love has a different form. Like ‘convoitise,’ which basically means ‘desire’ or ‘desire to possess’ in French. In the love story at the end, it’s not about taking the girl home. It’s very different, it’s only the beginning. Holding the girl’s hand is sufficient. Since I’m from Montreal, I’ll go ahead and quote Leonard Cohen: “love’s the only engine of survival.” For me, that’s the thing that makes the world turn.
Obviously, I’m curious about the Danish influences. You make some references to Nils Malmros and the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. Can you elaborate on how and why the influences play the part they do in the film?
Of course it’s meant as a small homage to Copenhagen. I think that most of the alcohol in the film alludes to Copenhagen brands; Nørrebro Beer, Ebeltoft Voda, Vesterbro Gin. And the Little Mermaid. I’ve been a teacher here, and I’ve been a student here. For me it changed my life. And it changed my conception of cinema. So my link with Denmark is very strong. I first came after the Dogme95 thing, and I was a huge fan back then of Lars von Trier. Something was going on in Denmark. And I was right, I was super stimulated when I came, not least when I discovered Scandinavian cinema and Bergman, who had a huge influence on me. When I came back to teach here ten years ago, my students introduced me to Nils Malmros, and I was very impressed by the film.
What can we expect from you in the future? Will this Danish love story go on?
I would like to do another film in Denmark, but right now I’m writing something else... I’m envisioning these American actors. I’m tempted to try to do it in English, and make it work with my Hollywood agents, but if it will be too complicated, I’ll do it in French before the government cuts cultural funding. Anyway, I’ve used ‘Genesis’ as a means to explore stereotypes related to gender. That’s why Guillaume’s story was interesting because of the codes of manhood and male behaviour. I’d like to pursue that in my next project and destroy the myth of masculinity. As a kid I always looked to these big masculine heroes, but I turned away when they came across as weak and disappointing. So that’s the topic of my new film.