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Comme le feu (Who by Fire) Review


Comme le feu (Who by Fire) | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Comme le feu (Who by Fire) | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Into the Woods: Lesage Explores Wounded Masculinities

Philippe Lesage Comme le feu - Who by Fire ReviewIn Vincent Sherman’s 1943 Bette Davis-led melodrama Old Acquaintance, the complex relationship between a pair of female frenemies becomes increasingly complicated throughout their lifetime. Resignedly, they rely on a metaphorical phrase to explain their relationship – “There’s always what’s left of the icing.” The same wistful sentiment cannot be said for the troubled relationship between two men in Philippe Lesage’s latest agonizing, unpredictable melodrama Who by Fire, which focuses on a pair of artists whose notable professional relationship dissolved years ago, now reuniting at a log cabin along with a handful of related guests. Lesage lulls the audience into a sense of serenity before suddenly tugging the rug out from under us as a series of intense, ultimately explosive verbal exchanges eventually bleeding into the inevitably of violence.

From its opening moments, Who by Fire hypnotizes with a Bressonian car ride set to an electro hum. DP Balthazar Lab focuses on three adolescents in the backseat of the car, the doe-eyed Aliocha (Aurelia Arandi-Longpre) sandwiched between Max (Antoine Marchand-Gagnon) and Jeff (Noah Parker), the latter’s body language drenched in desire as he tries to inch his hand as close to Aliocha as he can get. Eventually, their relationship is defined when they arrive at the isolated log cabin owned by an esteemed filmmaker named Blake Cadieux (Arieh Worthalter). Aliocha is Max’s sister and Jeff is his best friend, invited along on a ‘family’ gathering with their father Albert (Paul Ahmarani) to meet Blake, with whom he made a successful string of films years prior as a director/screenwriter duo. It’s increasingly clear there was a significant riff somewhere along the way between both men, parting ways as Blake decided to become a documentarian. Jeff, who is secretly in love with Aliocha, desires to be a filmmaker, and is enamored with Blake, until both of them end up competing for her attention.

Philippe Lesage Comme le feu - Who by Fire Review

But outside of the angsty yearnings of youth, the rot at the center of Who by Fire is the bitter resentment between Albert and Blake, both harboring an animosity which disrupts an otherwise enjoyable idyll. Albert, who has become a snobbish connoisseur of fine wines, can’t help but jibe at Blake during their first dinner sequence, his tongue unleashed by alcohol. Blake, in turn, plays his own games, with a new ‘best’ friend who is on hand to cook elaborate meals for the guests, and his assistant Millie (Sophie Desmarais), all held captive to witness an increasing vehemence. When a notable French actress, Helene (Irene Jacob) and her husband Eddy (Laurent Lucas) show up to crash at the cabin for a few days, a cruel joke is played on Albert. Jeff is witness to the perpetrators, and his increasing dislike of Blake, who is seducing Aliocha, causes the somewhat flimsy truce between the adults to spiral out of control.

Philippe Lesage Comme le feu - Who by Fire Review

For the most part, the level of characterization in Who by Fire is captivating, the jagged emotional elements of their intersecting needs and desires lighting up a surprisingly potent powder keg. At the same time, Lesage clearly seems uninterested in several peripheral characters who serve as mere catalysts, such as the woebegone Max, who doesn’t seem to have such a strong connection with Jeff, after all, while Sophie Desmarais is there to fill an occupational void. Likewise Laurent Lucas, who feels a bit too notable to feel so wasted until a third act tragedy strikes. But it’s refreshing to see an effervescent Irene Jacob, basically playing a version of herself as a notable Euro icon from the 90s.

The real meat of Who by Fire plays out in the dazzling maneuvers between Parker’s Jeff and Arandi-Longpre’s Aliocha (so named after Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) and how they intersect with the raw nerve agonies of Ahmarani and Worthalter. The casting of Blake and Albert feels inspired, especially with Worthalter, an actor who excels at playing sinister, ticking time bombs, as recently evidenced in Patricia Mazuy’s grueling Saturn Bowling (2022).

While Lesage ends on the merest suggestion of reconciliation, there’s arguably nothing left on the icing of this scorched cake between two compromised male egos who seem interested in driving knives into their wounds rather than burying the axe.

Reviewed on February 17th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Generation 14plus section. 161 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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