FILM REVIEW: Love Like Poison (2011)

Love Like Poison (France, 2011)
Directed by Katell Quillévéré
Starring Clara Augarde, Lio, Michel Galabru, Stefano Cassetti

For all the doom and gloom around sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes, 2011 has also been a year of striking debut features. Adding to The Guard, Sarah's Key and Oranges and Sunshine, we now have Love Like Poison from French-Ivorian director Katell Quillévéré. What appears on the surface to be just another coming-of-age story slowly reveals itself as a subtle, haunting and emotionally charged look at religion, sexuality and adolescence.Love Like Poison is set in the Brittany countryside and follows a 14-year-old girl called Anna Falguères (Clara Augarde) as she prepares to take Catholic communion for the very first time. Her mother and father are recently estranged, and the former increasingly seeks comfort in the company of local priest Père François (Stefano Cassetti). Both women are left to care for Anna's bedridden grandfather, who spends his days listening to old records and smoking cigars. While all this is going on, Anna is being wooed by Pierre, a boy younger than her who loves his football and loves her even more.The first real asset of Love Like Poison is its strong colour palette. Tom Harari's cinematography is melancholic and beautiful, resting on a prominence of blues and in particular whites. The white is not intrusive like the shimmering walls of a hospital, but pale, wan and pure like the chalk cliffs of the French and English coasts. Sometimes it is so bright that it drowns out the characters, like the yardsticks of purity to which they must aspire, knowing full well that their desires will cause them to fall short. In one scene where Père François lies praying in his bed, his black clothes fade into the dark blue covers, like he is sinking or even drowning in the gathering darkness.In its evocative and symbolic use of colour, the film draws an immediate comparison with Three Colours - Blue. The visual similarities are clear, with both Krzysztof Kieslowski and Quillévéré using different shades of blue to emphasise the sadness, grief and alienation which surrounds the central characters. And there is a narrative similarity in that one of the central characters has lost her husband, and is finding it hard to connect with the world around her. But whereas Kieslowski took a very humanist perspective, focussing on the hidden reserve of Juliette Binoche's character, Quillévéré is more concerned with the conflict between three kinds of devotion - to God, to one's family, and to the passion of young love. It takes more of a religious angle, albeit one in which religion does not come up with all of the answers.The central character in Love Like Poison faces three different but related dilemmas as she moves to take her first step into adulthood. The first concerns her attitude towards religion and the church. Anna's faith at the beginning of the film seems well-rooted and taken for granted: she keeps a picture of Christ at her bedside, and attends church with her family, of her own will as much as out of ritual. But by the end of the film this has grown lukewarm, as she faints in front of the Bishop and remains silent when he asks questions to the congregation, asking them to affirm their faith. There has not been a decisive volte-face on Anna's part, but doubts have entered her life which makes an outright committal impossible.The second dilemma concerns Anna's attitude towards her family. There are a number of awkward conversations between Anna and her mother as her confirmation approaches. Anna asks her mother about what she looked like at her age, and gets an inconclusive answer. Later her mother comes into the bathroom as she is topless, saying that she wants to look at her; Anna unfolds her arms to reveal her bare breasts and snipes sarcastically: "Do I turn you on?" Anna has to care for her mother for much of the film, and is determined not to end up like her, looking upon her relationship with Père François with some suspicion.In her effort to avoid turning into her mother, Anna turns towards the affections of her estranged father. When he first returns home to deal with the death of Anna's grandfather, he seems to genuinely want to bond with her, taking her to the beach and talking about coming to live with him in Quimper. But as the action moves on the distance between them re-emerges: he leaves without a moment's notice to return to his new life, leaving Anna angry and alone.This encounter leads onto the third of Anna's dilemmas, namely her relationship with and attitude towards men. Her grandfather is dismissed as harmless but becomes pervy as the film rolls on, fantasising over a magazine and getting turned on by Anna washing him. Both her father and the priest come across as well-meaning but ultimately incompetent, or at least too at odds with their own desires to be of any real use. Pierre, on the other hand, begins very aggressively, pinning her down on the rock to kiss her when they are out in the woods. But by the time they take their tops off they are on equal terms, and when Anna kisses Pierre in his room, she seems to have come into her own.What makes Love Like Poison interesting as a coming-of-age film is that the struggles of the central character don't feel isolated, like some weird disease which only affects young people. The adults in the film have the same concerns and qualms with regard to religion and relationships, and there are no convenient plot devices to tone these down. Where American coming-of-age films tend to portray the step into adulthood as something with a definite endpoint, with the lines between child and adult clearly drawn, the characters in Love Like Poison are still walking the treacherous emotional path that Anna has just begun to explore.Love Like Poison is a deeply atmospheric film. Beyond its visual claustrophobia, its use of sound and music in particular is haunting and thought-provoking. In one early scene, when Anna wanders through the ruins to meet the priest, a version of 'Greensleeves' can be heard. This folk tune, erroneously attributed to Henry VIII as a love song to Anne Boleyn, has strong sexual connotations: "green gown" was a euphemism for prostitute, since such garments would disguise any grass stains caused by outdoor lovemaking.Over the end credits, where Anna seems to have found some kind of uneasy peace with Pierre, there is a choral version of Radiohead's 'Creep', previously used on trailers for The Social Network. Although the effect is not as powerful as in Fincher's film, it cements the tone of unease and eeriness which lifts the film while keeping the air close and thick with rumour. Like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Love Like Poison is a film in which on the surface nothing is happening, but in fact there is so much going on.There are a couple of flaws with the film which stop it totally achieving a knock-out punch. Apart from some standard quibbles over paucity of plot and occasionally languorous pacing, the main concern is over the amount of nudity. For the most part the film handles the matter sensitively, if not poetically; while it doesn't shy away from nudity as a concept or rite of passage, it doesn't by and large see this as an excuse for ill-judged gratuity. But while the woodland scenes are well-judged by showing hardly anything, the sight of the old man's erection is disgusting, even when it's in his trousers, and when Anna lifts her dress to show him her womanhood, it feels totally unnecessary to both plot and mood.Love Like Poison is a very promising debut effort which both avoids the clichés of coming-of-age stories and does just about enough to cover up its own flaws. Katell Quillévéré directs with finesse and sensitivity, creating an atmosphere of great unease and a host of complex characters, anchored by Clara Augarde's great central performance. You will want to spend some time afterwards trying to work out where you stand with regard to the people on screen, especially over Anna's state of mind in the denouement. While not perfect, it contains much to be admired, along with a great deal that will linger.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: A striking and haunting debut


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