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BERLINALE 2024 Generation

Philippe Lesage • Director of Who by Fire

“I go where it hurts”


- BERLINALE 2024: The Canadian director explains how he took pleasure in misleading the viewer in his new film, where adults just can’t stop pretending

Philippe Lesage • Director of Who by Fire

Jeff is heading to an isolated cabin owned by director Blake Cadieux. His friend Max is there, too, as well as his crush, Max’s sister Aliocha. But they will also have to deal with the world of adults, who just can’t stop pretending – even in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods. Philippe Lesage’s Who by Fire [+see also:
film review
interview: Philippe Lesage
film profile
is screening in Generation 14plus at the Berlinale.

Cineuropa: The atmosphere of the film screamed “horror” to me. When people head out to a remote place in a forest, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.
Philippe Lesage:
I wasn’t trying to make a genre film, but this tension is definitely there. It’s part of my cinema: it was there in The Demons and Genesis. The way this story is structured encourages these kinds of expectations, but then I try to break them. “Oh, so you think this is going to happen? I’ll show you.” I took some pleasure in misleading the viewer. You also get a certain genre feeling thanks to the dream sequence. It’s a kind of catharsis for the characters, but it also mirrors their trauma. Hopefully, they will later recover from this trip. I was trying not to stereotype any of them. They remain human and nuanced, I hope. You really don’t want to end up with “good guys” and “bad guys”.

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This tension you just mentioned – you keep it up throughout the whole story. There aren’t many moments when you can sit back and relax.
Maybe you can relax when they are dancing or when he is alone in the forest? Although there are still things happening during that scene. I didn’t want the film to feel like a play, so nature and these people’s relationship with it were important. That’s why we decided to shoot in CinemaScope. There could be some relief coming from being out in nature, but it’s full of traps. It looks beautiful, yet there is a factory hidden there that’s destroying this area. You can mess with nature, but it will ultimately get its revenge.

It’s all about illusion and putting on a façade. These people are unable to just be themselves, and maybe that’s why it’s hard to relax, even during these lighter scenes. They are still pretending.
There are two worlds colliding: the world of young people and the world of adults. The world of adults is a bit like this forest – on the surface, everything seems perfectly normal. But these youngsters look at them, and they are disappointed. It’s terrible when you are ashamed of how your parents interact with others. They turn to this successful guy, Blake, but he is also full of flaws.

I had this thought that maybe adults have to disappoint – maybe this is their role? It allows their kids to grow up because we never want to end up like our parents. Now, I am expecting a child myself, and it’s certainly on my mind.

It’s an important step to realise that adults are only human, and they can obsess over who stole their wine, like in the film. They almost regress here.
The word “regression” is an interesting one because these are old friends meeting again. In this kind of situation, or when you are with your parents, it happens so often – you are a teenager again. Also, it’s a group. They show off in front of each other, then a famous actress adds another layer to it. They want to look good! There is something bigger at play, and these little conflicts, like the whole “winegate”, are a sign of that. Small things destroy egos.

Why talk about a film director? Did you want to mock the industry a little?
He could have been successful in any other field – I made him a director because this way, it’s more personal. We actually have so many similar figures in Canadian cinema – directors living somewhere out in the woods, fishing and hunting. He used to be this big thing for a moment, but it’s clear he is not there any more. He is not Bergman. Now, he is hiding like some small animal.

All of these conflicts are quite funny.
I think it’s a funny film! There is nothing funnier than our flaws and clumsiness. The way this boy manifests his attraction towards this girl… It’s so awkward. But there is darkness, and I was interested in exploring that, too. I am breaking some rules here because the story is very dense and many things happen to many characters. I was guided by them.

It can be interesting to talk about things you are ashamed of, things that hurt a bit. That’s what I have been doing for a couple of years now – I go where it hurts. There is a bit more distance this time because I wasn’t interested in making Genesis 2, and personally, I am not very outdoorsy. But if I ever feel humiliated, there is a very good chance that it will end up in a film.

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