A quiet highlight of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Love Like Poison (2010) is the debut feature of Katell Quillévéré and sees the director delving into a meaty concoction of Catholicism, domestic discontentment and the temptations of young love, but does so in the most subtle and gentle of ways, teasing out the drama rather than throwing it in your face.
Set in a wispy, small scale French village, the film focuses on 14-year-old Anna (Clara Augarde) during the complicated run up to her religious confirmation, where extenuating circumstances begin to cloud her faith and her heart; her parents, having recently separated, conspire to move on with their lives, however distressing the consequences, and her grandfather begins to succumb to his long-gestating ailments. What also emerges, on the other hand, is Anna’s addressing of her unrequited sexuality, catching the eye of local choirboy Pierre who has long watched her from afar.
Combining an underlying spiritual texture with a languid, if slightly subdued, tone, Love Like Poison works through the way it studies the intertwining relationships shared by its small number of characters, who all have a noticeable presence for a film that plays out with a relatively trim running time of 92 minutes.
Dangling in and out of the central narrative, the family that surrounds Anna are as overbearing as they are stifling, paving the way for the eventual recognition of her burgeoning emotions. Her mother, played by Lio, has become a bitter, unfulfilled and uncomfortably neurotic presence who detests her absent husband (Thierry Neuvic) and seeks solace with the parochial local priest (Italian star Stefano Cassetti).
The only reliable company Anna has is that of her charming grandfather, who resides alone in his bedroom listening to old records and pining for the heydays of his youth, accentuated by his twinkly-eyed demeanor and the possession of a long dormant libido, seen in one sequence where he obtains an erection during a sponge bath Anna gives him, where he sighs “I feel handsome” before his granddaughter leaves the room in shock.
One of the more memorable scenes, this emphasizes the way Quillévéré deftly handles the material by matching it with faint whiffs of comedy, making light of the relatively dark issues faced by its protagonist. As this is a coming of age tale, Anna’s ascension into the ranks of pubescent sexuality is given a hefty amount of screen time, but unlike other films that deal with similar issues, these scenes are never smutty or needlessly overstated, instead seeping out of the characters and the situations with a natural urgency, a close resemblance of everyday life.
Similarly, the budding relationship Anna forms with Pierre is good natured and tastefully depicted, a far cry from more emotionally complex, and rather graphic, explorations of underage passion in the genre, seen for example in Catherine Breillat’s A Ma Soeur! (2001), one of France’s most controversial movies to date.
A pleasant, but by no means underwhelming French ditty, Love Like Poison is very much a film about the journey rather than the destination, and no matter how stoic that journey is, Quillévéré competently shies away from cliché and sidesteps the melodramatic elements of the narrative, delivering a delicately constructed, intimate and excellently performed gem.