BERLIN — A shockwave rippled through the Generation 14plus section of the Berlinale — aka the Berlin International Film Festival — on Saturday evening with the world premiere of Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s La déesse des mouches à feu (Goddess of the Fireflies).
The Quebec director’s raucous adaptation of the novel of the same name by Geneviève Petterson is a sex-, drugs- and rock ‘n’ roll-infused ride that begins on protagonist Catherine’s (Kelley Depeault) 16th birthday.
Barbeau-Lavalette pulls no punches in this sensorial account of the girl’s turbulent, exhilarating passage from innocence to world-weary experience. Set in the cellphone- and internet-free bubble of the 90s, it’s a raw coming-of-age story the likes of which we rarely see on the big screen.
The film crashed through the sold-out Urania Berlin e.V. theatre like a tidal wave, Saturday, sweeping up all in attendance and carrying them out to sea. Most impressive is that, as its name suggests, the festival’s Generation 14plus section is geared to young film fans, 14 and up. There were viewers of all ages in attendance, including many teens, attending with friends or family.
“I was completely conscious, during the screening, of the adolescents discovering it,” Barbeau-Lavalette said. “It wasn’t just adolescents, but I knew there were some, and to feel the reactions of these people at this turning point in their life — to hear them laugh, cry and reacting to the strong moments I had hoped for — it was touching.”
“The scariest thing for me was wondering whether the emotions would travel across borders, but there was something palpable in the room. Catherine’s adolescence could easily be that of a young Berliner. From (the moment I realized that), I knew the film could go anywhere.”
Carrying the movie is a fearless performance by Depeault, who at Saturday’s premiere exhibited the same combination of spontaneity and charisma as her character, twirling giddily as the cast and crew made their entrance, just before the movie began. The 17-year-old actress had only a few credits to her name, but is sure to rise swiftly to prominence after this.
“After the screening, she told me she felt like she just gave birth,” Barbeau-Lavalette recounted. “It was a trial by fire for her. In the film we see Catherine transform, but we also see an actress transform. It was an extraordinary feeling for her to finally present the film. She was really happy, and living a big moment. It was very emotional.”
Barbeau-Lavalette has been to the Berlinale twice before, with Le Ring and Inch’Allah, both films with socio-political subtexts. Here, she leaves behind the outside world and plunges into the visceral impact of a teenage girl throwing herself into life with abandon.
“I wanted to offer a frontal point-of-view on adolescence,” Barbeau-Lavalette said. “I had never seen a film that looked at this transformation, this age, the way I had lived it — as the height of the mutation of a character, without judgment, and embracing the vertigo of that passage, along with the pain and beauty it brings.
“This isn’t a film that depends on a dramatic storyline. It’s a story of transformation, so it had to be sensual; you had to feel it in your gut.”
La déesse des mouches à feu is an immersive cinematic achievement. Jonathan Decoste’s intuitive cinematography, Sylvain Bellemare’s impressionistic sound design, and Stéphane Lafleur’s dynamic editing round out a film that always feels perfectly in step with its wild young characters.
A triumphant soundtrack featuring everyone from David Bowie to Chuck Berry, The Cramps, Hole and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, along with Quebec acts Offenbach and, tongue-in-cheek, Les B.B., gives the whole thing an international flair reminiscent of Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y.
It remains to be seen whether La déesse des mouches à feu takes home any awards at the Berlinale. But this critic’s fearless prediction says it’s a definite contender, with a bright future ahead.
“I’m very proud of the film,” Barbeau-Lavalette said. “You never know if people will absorb it with both their intellect and their senses. This is a movie that has to be felt. I wanted to make a sensitive film that is also rough. I was wondering if people would feel everything, but I think those things are universal.”