by Jacob Mouradian
For a film with so many symbolic surfaces at play–from a public pool to a private lake to something as simple as upturned soil–Philippe Lesage’s Les démons (English: “The Demons”) is a portrait of panic that doesn’t feel like going all that deep beneath them.
Set in the suburbs of Montreal in an unspecified era, The Demons follows the young boy Félix (played by Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) as he deals with a growing amount of struggles: from his parents (Laurent Lucas and Pascale Bussières) becoming belligerently estranged to a rash of child abductions to his perplexing introduction to sexuality, with the latter much to the annoyance of both his teacher and neighbor (Victoria Diamond and Mathis Thomas, respectively). Bombarded by confusion and walled in by neurosis, Félix both lashes out at others through bullying and recedes into his own private sphere, unwilling to face his external oppressions.
The Demons is director Lesage’s first foray into narrative filmmaking, as he previously built up his oeuvre through documentary features. Now working in fiction it seems that he casts his net a bit too wide, grabbing a lot at once but not going deep enough to catch anything of great sustenance.
The Demons is a metaphor for childhood to both its strength and its detriment. Based in part on Lesage’s own childhood, it’s rife with a 1980s-esque climate of stranger-danger and AIDS-based moral panic. While this would make sense as a period piece, as knob-controlled televisions and boxy four-door sedans are the focus with digital technology nearly non-present, the fashion and design of the world still feels unmistakably modern with a post-2000 edge. This could be rationalized as a result of budgetary constraints or even as a stylistic choice to elicit a timeless feel, but it’s still hard to pin down when this film is set and thus makes it unclear whether its panic-ridden tone defines it as a period piece or as an updated allegory. If it’s the former, then it doesn’t feel authentic enough; if it’s the latter, then it feels somewhat disconnected with the aim of its critique.
The film revels in its thematic tangents related to childhood, from the development of one’s identity to the fading of their innocence. Even the very audio-visual aspects are symbolic of this, from the camera taking Félix’s point of view by scrutinizing every tiny change in character to the score swelling in intensity to make even the most banal of moments seem incredibly important.
While each of the film’s themes feel prominent on their own they feel like checkpoints in the grand scheme of the narrative. There are some interesting things to be said here in regards to the psychology of a bully to the crushing results of loneliness, but they seemed to be abandoned as soon as they’re begun. Lesage even allots time to Thomas and Funk’s characters in an effort to showcase the widespread recurrence of these characteristics, but they inhabit a strange middle ground in that neither are given quite enough screen time to garner great investment yet they aren’t so minimal as to fleetingly write them off. The film even attempts to take a surreal stab at its title’s insinuation but is quick to abandons that, reminding us that it really is just a figure of speech. This creates a bit of distance between the audience and the characters, which doesn’t seem ideal with a film this heavy-hearted.
But to its credit, The Demons succeeds at tackling these subjects with steady-handed gravitas. The film takes some gruesome turns that are obvious on the surface, but Lesage handles them gracefully without falling to base levels of shock as some more amateur talents might exploit. These moments are not so much gut-punches as they are thematic acid, slowly eating away at one’s stomach through prolonged tension and nervousness, making us hope that things will take a turn for the better even though, deep down, we know they won’t.
At its core, The Demons doesn’t have a problem with what it wants to say but how it says it, spreading itself a bit too bare and distant to provoke unmitigated praise. But Lesage has a talent for prolonged tension and shows promise for future heart-wrenching drama. A flawed but peculiar first exercise.