You’d expect the pivotal music cue in Philippe Lesage’s Who by Fire to be its namesake by Leonard Cohen, a beautiful and plaintive prayer of a song. But instead it’s The B-52s’ infectious slice of bubblegum “Rock Lobster,” initially seeded through a dialogue reference, then heard fully in an eccentric sequence I won’t further detail. The funny, noteworthy quirk of “Rock Lobster,” though, is its structurally well-earned length of just under seven minutes. Who by Fire, running 161 minutes itself, also seems to be up to something, committing to that runtime as such a contained, semi-domestic drama: a provocation through duration. 

A rising Québécois filmmaker making his second coproduction with France, Lesage thus far in his career has tinkered around the edges of familiar genres and subject matter, embedding these into his personal sensibility if never quite reinventing them. The camera styles of his two prior major features The Demons and Genesis––competing in San Sebastián and Locarno, respectively––were convincingly compared to Haneke and early Östlund, with their piercing, antiseptically clean glare; Who by Fire––which won the top prize in Berlin’s Generation strand––is more conventionally shot, if always assured in its technique, while its narrative and thematic preoccupations also feel smaller and less urgent than the teenage wastelands seen in his previous work. 

It’s a tale of a literal teen, one who behaves and maybe wishes he was one. The late-adolescent Jeff (Noah Parker) is a guest hitching along with his closest friend Max (Antoine Marchand-Gagnon), his intrepid sister Aliocha (Aurélia Arandi-Longpré), and their father Albert (Paul Ahmarani) as they travel to the French-Canadian wilderness to meet the latter’s estranged friend Blake Cadieux (Arieh Worthalter, a recent César-winner for The Goldman Case, and also in the midst of building an impressive body of work); he is an acclaimed and troubled film director who, in his personal manner, revels in putting others ill at ease. 

In an opening piece of atmosphere-setting oddly recalling Ex Machina, Blake picks them up on a small seaplane, whisking them over a colossal body of water to his secluded log cabin deep in the trees. Some years ago, Albert wrote Blake’s strongest films: of a piece with the Lesage’s troubling deferral of clarity and indifference to real, foregrounded detail, it’s hard for us to imagine exactly what they were. But now reality itself is Blake’s artistic clay, and he claims to be pursuing some artisanal documentary-making amidst the nature he’s tamed and made his home in, with his isolated hovel as the post-production base. 

Although we can surmise both agreed to the reunion to contemplate reigniting their partnership, Albert and Blake provoke and proverbially tear each other’s hair out soon after their first man-hug. Jeff was compelled to join this trip as an aspiring filmmaker himself and admirer of Blake’s, and what exists of the film’s tension derives from his very clumsily expressed affection for Aliocha, and the older director’s own highly dubious pursuit of her. It’s a truly unrequited, anti-love triangle, and like in his previous work, Lesage sensitively reflects on but never sentimentalizes adolescent behavior: what we observe is raw, tentative, sometimes inexplicable, and put before us as if in a clinical setting, under laboratory conditions and stark lights.

But still, far from guiding our attention and suspicions like Théodore Pellerin was able to, as the troubled prep schooler in Genesis, Jeff and Blake fail to develop dimensions taking them beyond stock characters, as they shallowly fulfill our expectations of a still-immature young adult, contesting a caddish monster of an artist. Who by Fire is long, uncomfortable, and proceeds predictably, yet to its credit, it’s always rigorously taking inspiration from how a situation like this might proceed in reality––full of dead time, stoppages, and glimpses of a thawing in tensions––and not stooping to pre-ordained narrative closure. The crockery is helped to the cupboard after dinner, and a B-52s track blares out to the very end, its tinny din overpowering the characters’ own inner alarms. And finally, you prosaically return home from this nightmare only the way you came: aboard a low-flying plane, the Stygian, grey-colored waters churning below.    

Who by Fire premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B-

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