‘Falcon Lake’ Review: Heartbreak — and Possibly Ghosts — Lurk Under a Melancholy Summer Romance

The eerily contemplative opening frames of “Falcon Lake” depict an idyllic lake on a summer night, a scene so calmly off-putting that you just know something has to be amiss. The shot remains unchanged for so long that when a body finally rises out of the water, it feels more like an inevitable moment of catharsis than a jump scare. That ominous serenity continues throughout “Falcon Lake,” yet the first truly startling moment in Charlotte Le Bon’s directorial debut is the sight of a Nintendo Switch.

Thanks to Le Bon’s dreamlike pacing and Kristof Brandl’s grainy cinematography, the film’s opening scenes of a nuclear family heading out for a lake house vacation come across as a long-buried memory unfolding before our eyes. The establishing shots would seamlessly fit into an ABC-era “Twin Peaks” episode, and the fashion could be ripped straight from a mid-90s Vineyard Vines catalog. The effect is so convincing that a brief mention of a contemporary video game console becomes an almost Brechtian revelation that we’re watching something that takes place in our own world. That brilliant directorial choice sucks us into the same predicament that her characters can’t avoid: We’re always tempted to drift toward nostalgia despite the real-world pain that keeps being shoved in our faces.

Falcon Lake is allegedly haunted by a ghost, and undeniably haunted by secret desires. The 13-year-old Bastien (Joseph Engel) is starting to rage with hormones, and his parents are filled with their own desires for extramarital affairs as they head to spend the summer at their friends’ cabin. Bastien’s sights are set on Chloe (Sara Montpetit), the family friends’ plucky 16-year-old daughter who isn’t exactly thrilled to be sharing her digs with two children for the summer. She’s much more interested in enjoying the Falcon Lake social scene, which typically revolves around stealing homemade wine from her dad and drinking with boys around campfires.

She’s frequently saddled with babysitting duties — presumably so her parents can fuck Bastien’s parents — but she manages to entertain herself by scaring Bastien and his younger brother with stories about the ghost who lives in the lake. When that gets old, she starts introducing him to booze and drugs. A proximity-based friendship quickly begins to form, if for no other reason than they both need someone to drink with. But it evolves into a more serious mentor-mentee relationship as she teaches him to navigate hangovers, house parties, and — eventually — female anatomy.

Like any great age-gap movie, “Falcon Lake” finds drama in the gray areas of the forbidden relationship between the two teenagers. It’s never lost on either Bastien or Chloe that he’s lusting after her and she’s just killing time with him. There are occasional moments when his passion and her boredom align in a way that gives them both what they want, but the gap in enthusiasm is apparent when he watches her pursue boys she’s much more interested in. Even the most salacious moments in the film are infused with a sense of melancholy, as it becomes clear that we’re watching the best moments of a story that’s destined to end badly.

Yet we keep watching, due in large part to the deeply human performances from Engel and Montpetit. His understated maturity gives the impression that his soul is much older than 13, which juxtaposes delightfully with his blatant ignorance about adult activities. And she is the perfect embodiment of a teenage girl who has become so bored of her daily routine that she’s willing to dip her toes into forbidden taboos just to blow up the monotony.

It’s truly astounding that “Falcon Lake” is the work of a first-time feature director. Le Bon demonstrates a masterful understanding of shot composition and pacing that allows her to craft a haunting vibe without turning it into a gimmick. The promise that “Falcon Lake” is going to turn into a genre film is always lurking around the corner, but we spend most of the time watching a perverse love child of “Licorice Pizza” and “Call Me By Your Name.” Bastien and Chloe demonstrate the kind of “more than a friendship, not quite a romance” connection that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has partaken in an ephemeral summer fling. Much like the rumored Falcon Lake ghost, it almost doesn’t matter if the romantic connection was ever real — because the emotions it evoked are there to stay.

Grade: A-

“Falcon Lake” premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. The film is now playing in select theaters from Yellow Veil Pictures.

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