Canada's Top Ten Review: 'The Demons'

The Demons (Les démons)
(Canada, 118 min.)
Written and directed by Phillipe Lesage
Starring: Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Pier-Luc Funk, Pascale Bussières, Laurent Lucas, Vassili Schneider, Sarah Mottet, Victoria Diamond
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

The Demons offers this year’s big surprise for Canada’s Top Ten. Director Phillippe Lesage isn’t a household name and his movie is one of Quebec’s most critically-lauded flops of 2015, but those factors help make the director one of the top Canadian talents to watch from 2015. The Demons adds to the strength of Sleeping Giant, Les êtres chers, and Closet Monster to make this year’s Canada’s Top Ten festival a celebration of up-and-coming Canadian talent.

The Demons marks Lesage’s first dramatic film after delivering a quartet of documentaries. His talent as a documentarian is evident in the film’s disquieting observational aesthetic. The Demons offers a dark coming-of-age tale as it watches nine-year-old Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) grow up in a quiet Montreal suburb during one fateful and very disturbing summer. The boy wrestles with all sorts of inner monsters as he finds himself confused and distressed while being picked on in school and coming home to absentee parents who struggle to hold their marriage together.

Felix battles inner demons like his uncertain sexuality as he both fights and nurtures his interest in peers of both genders. Similarly, the taboos of being gay in an old-fashioned neighbourhood add extra layers of fear to his troubled mind as he worries about damnation, AIDS, and the like as he explores his sexuality. Other currents of fear, such as the rumors of a child-murderer/pedophile, add to Felix’s concern. There’s nary a visual clue to decipher the year of the setting, either, as Lesage favours analogue technology in the film, so Demons lets the community’s openness to these demons hang in an ambiguous limbo.

Lesage shows an impressive skill for directing young talent as Demons predominantly features a cast of child actors who tackle risqué material with disarmingly objective and sensitive performances. Lesage’s lethargic observational style lets the young actors work at their own pace. The aesthetic affords the performances a degree of naturalism that plays off the director’s approach. A few familiar faces, including Pascal Bussières as Felix’s mother, help drive the film, but the young actors really carry the material and take the film to unexpectedly dark places. Tremblay-Grenier is especially impressive as he channels Felix’s fears and insecurities with maturity.

Demons then defies expectations with an un-signalled shift in perspective in its third act. The film sees the community through the eyes of a pedophile as he hunts his next victim. Strangely, shockingly, the film manages to make the audience sympathize for someone who preys on children. Thanks to the film’s detached viewpoint and to the strength of its cast, Demons tells the audience that the monster is not the man but the illness within him. At the same time, these dark places where Demons walks validate the paralyzing fears that make Felix quiver.

Lesage aids the jolting shift in tone and point of view work by building to the climax with a mounting sense of dread. The film simmers with a glacially paced story and style that take their time unfolding events at the speed of kid who lives without a care in the world. Static shots watch the kids as they travel the halls of the school, while other bravura scenes troll Felix’s environment with expertly crafted long takes and dolly shots that inject a monstrous element of suspense into the film. The use of space is suspenseful, particularly in one riveting shot that moves back and forth through the length of a swimming pool to watch the kids in action. Using the mere elements of framing, action, and tempo, Demons creates an atmosphere that leaves one fearful of negative space. One almost expects Mr. Babadook to come flying into the frame and devour Felix at any moment.

These tableaux shots appear methodically throughout the film and purposefully shake up the flow of the story with pulsating beats. The film employs an electronic score mixed reminiscent of It Follows and juxtaposes the music with classical tracks like “Finlandia” to ensure that one never knows what to expect at any moment. The effect is chilling if one has the patience for it, but the range of the soundtrack veers from effective to haphazard. (Lesage revealed at the film’s Canada’s Top Ten screening that the composer scored the film without even seeing it and it shows to some extent.)

Lesage’s meditative direction suits this unnerving material very well, but his skills as a screenwriter are a demon of their own sort. Demons is often powerful and pointless at the same time as the film meanders too much as it observes Felix squirm with fear and the pacing is almost obnoxiously slow as Demons unfolds its episodic narrative without at its own leisure. The film’s jarring shift in perspective is also its virtue just as much as it is its failing, as it initially plays like an awkward digression by turning its gaze to a new character well over an hour into the film and devoting twenty-odd minutes to this character’s demons before returning to Oscar. When Oscar re-enters the frame, so too do ghosts, which both brilliantly and bizarrely give Oscar’s story a mood akin to The Sixth Sense as the demons become real. The film is almost infuriatingly inconsistent, yet one feels the director’s intent on this front as Demons refuses to let the audience collect itself at any turn. It’s nevertheless a very promising and technically adept breakthrough for a rising talent.

Demons screened in Toronto as part of the Canada’s Top Ten festival.