A secluded Canadian cabin plays host to a web of dysfunctional relationships in Philippe Lesage’s Generation winner

Who By Fire

Dir/scr: Philippe Lesage. Canada/France. 2024. 161mins

A cabin in the woods is the setting for emotional conflict and bruising relationships rather than conventional horrors in Who By Fire. Philippe Lesage’s sprawling feature brings his trademark themes of adolescent anguish and toxic masculinity to a broader canvas but with uneven results. The languorous drift of the storytelling, the meandering focus and an epic running time could all prove daunting for a film that won the Grand Prix of the Generation International Jury in Berlin’s Generation 14plus strand.

The pace is unhurried and the action often appears semi-improvised

Who By Fire begins on the road, with a lengthy opening sequence in which a car is observed driving deeper into the Canadian wilderness. Screenwriter Albert (Paul Ahmarani) has accepted an invitation to spend a week at the remote log cabin of his friend, acclaimed film director Blake Cadiuex (played by Arieh Worthalter, a recent Cesar winner for The Goldman Case (2023)). The back seat of the car is occupied by Albert’s son Max (Antoine Marchand-Gagnon), his daughter Aliocha (Arandi-Longpre) and Max’s best friend Jeff (Noah Parker). Jeff’s hands shake with nerves as he sits knee to knee beside Aliocha, who rebuffs the slightest attempt at further physical contact.

A trip by seaplane takes the family even further into the wilderness, and to a remote house and work base that seems to be Blake’s equivalent of Ingmar Bergman’s Faro Island retreat. His dog is even named Ingmar. Initially we assume the story’s focus is Jeff, an awkward, immature teenager whose surly manner makes him look like a future mass shooter. His unrequited infatuation with Aliocha torments him, and every rejection or slight feels like a matter of life and death.

Instead, the focus shifts to the relationship between Blake and Albert, former collaborators who have not seen each other for three years. The dinner table becomes a battleground with everyone else, including a trio of Blake’s friends and colleagues, reduced to the role of audience members. In a long, static shot of the group at their evening meal, Blake needles and humiliates his old friend, fuelling his insecurities. The raw emotion is reminiscent of a Cassavetes film as the duo slip into the roles of men behaving badly.

There is an echo of that relationship in the domineering Blake’s treatment of Jeff, an aspiring filmmaker whom he nicknames Spielberg. A further echo comes in Jeff’s treatment of Max, a figure of little interest to either him or the film. Adding to the mix is the arrival of French couple Eddy and his wife Helene, an actress who was big in the 1990s; the roles make little demands on Laurent Lucas or a radiant Irene Jacob.

The film invites us to observe and contemplate the various relationship dynamics at play. The pace is unhurried and the action often appears semi-improvised, with the muted cabin lighting adding to the gloomy, claustrophobic feel and a sense of being trapped. Lesage makes use of an eclectic soundtrack to signal mood changes, including John Grant’s Marz and the B-52s Rock Lobster which lifts the gloom of the group, sparking a moment of carefree communal dancing. There are lyrical moments along the way and Lesage does inject some drama as the petulant Jeff runs away to spend a night in the woods and a group trip down river turns tragic. In some sense, everyone here is paddling along calm waters, unaware that they are heading towards the rapids.

Increasingly melodramatic and prone to ill-advised dream sequences, Who By Fire finds a focus of sorts in Aliocha, who is writing a novel about the decline of western society. She is one of the few caring, compassionate figures in a gathering of the unsympathetic. A spirited Aurelia Arandi-Longpre invests her with an intelligence and confidence that makes you long to know more of her story.

Production companies:  L’Unite Central, Shellac Sud

International sales: Be For Films sales@beforfilms.com

Producer: Galile Marion-Gauvin

Cinematography: Balthazar Lab

Production design: Genevieve Huot

Editing: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo

Main cast: Noah Parker, Aurelia Arandi-Longpre, Arieh Worthalter, Paul Ahmarani