DIR: Katell Quillévéré
CAST: Clara Augarde, Lio, Stefano Cassetti,
Michel Galabru, Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil
Katell Quillévéré’s first feature may seem from its synopsis to be just another in the seemingly endless line of coming of age movies that many European directors have been making of late, but LOVE LIKE POISON is a thoughtful, intimate and beautifully made film that is about more than simply being a teenager.
The main character is 14-year-old Anna (Augarde), home for the summer from her Catholic boarding school and preparing for her confirmation. Her parents (Lio and Thierry Neuvic) have split up, and she’s staying with her Mother and her ailing Grandfather (Galabru). Outside her religion, about which she seems to be having some doubts, and caring for her Grandfather, Anna’s time is taken up with the altar boy next door; Pierre (Leboulanger-Gourvil), with whom she shares her first adolescent fumblings. Meanwhile, Anna’s mother is developing a strong attraction to the handsome local priest, Father Francois (Cassetti).
There is a marked difference in how teenage life is presented in film from the US and Europe, and like most other European films featuring teenagers, LOVE LIKE POISON refuses to look at adolescence through rose tinted glasses, dramatizing it as a time of confusion. Here that is largely seen through Anna’s often conflicting desires; does she want to advance spiritually or sexually? The film pivots around religious ceremonies, around the way Anna interprets and reacts to them, and especially around her confirmation. In one the film’s most striking scenes a Bishop reads St Paul’s letter to the Galatians at Anna’s confirmation, the text of which essentially condemns all the other things she’s been feeling and exploring for the first time. It is perhaps the most pointed criticism of Catholicism in a film that often rails against dogma. Without going overboard, the film takes Anna on a plausible journey from the girl who, as the film opens, keeps a postcard of Jesus against her breast as she sleeps to the girl who gives one of cinema’s more inappropriate eulogies in the penultimate scene.
That’s not to say that LOVE LIKE POISON is a film that bellows an agenda at you. First of all, Quillévéré has several religious characters who are very sympathetic. There is Lio’s excellent performance as Anna’s mother, who seems desperately unhappy, deeply in need of her faith, but challenged by it as she finds herself attracted to a priest. She isn’t the focus of the film, but Lio gives Jeanne great depth, playing her as a bundle of raw emotion in a very affecting performance. Equally good is Stefano Cassetti. At first his Father Francois appears a rather thin character, almost bland in his straightforward goodness and devotion to his job, but Quillévéré and Cassetti find layers in him, especially in his scenes with Lio, which all have an undertone of barely repressed sexual tension.
But LOVE LIKE POISON is, as I said, about more than Catholicism, it’s a coming of age story, and sensitively written and played one at that. Anna and Pierre’s experiences feel universal; that crush you had on the girl next door, your first kiss, a game of ‘I’ll show you mine’ and the awkwardness of telling someone how you feel, it’s all very identifiable, but it also feels specific to these characters. That’s never more true than in the film’s one really funny scene, in which Pierre sings a song he’s written about Anna. Written by the film’s cinematographer, Pierre’s song is a perfect mix of earnest and awkward, exactly the sort of thing a lovestruck 14 year old might write; a bad enough song to be believable, but sincere enough to work for the moment too.
14-year-old Clara Augarde is in almost every shot of this film, and despite the fact that she appears not to have acted before, Quillévéré has coaxed an exceptional performance from her. Perhaps because Augarde is so close in age and experience to her character, she never hits a false note. She brings across all the different facets of her character equally effectively; the concerned granddaughter caring for her Grandpa (whatever that may mean), the young girl who wants to be attractive, the religiously raised kid having trouble with her faith, it all comes through very truthfully in an understated and consistently excellent performance.
Augarde is one of the names to watch from this film, the other is Katell Quillévéré, whose intelligent direction makes this a beautiful looking film. Her style is very composed, camera movement and editing are, like the story, slow and subtle, and she uses her images to draw you into the story. It’s perhaps less austere visually, but the composition of Quillévéré’s shots, as well as the use of religion as a central story point, often brought to mind Jessica Hausner’s brilliant LOURDES.
The only real problem I had with LOVE LIKE POISON was with the Grandfather character played by Michel Galabru. It’s not that Galabru is bad, just that his character is frequently uncomfortable, especially in the way he relates to his granddaughter. I had difficulty understanding what Quillévéré and co-writer Mariette Désert were going for in that aspect of that relationship, and for me they could quite easily have dropped that whole thread.
Overall though, LOVE LIKE POISON is an impressive debut, and promises much for the future from Katell Quillévéré. If you don’t mind your movies, even ones about teenagers, slow and contemplative, with more questions than answers, then it comes recommended.