Religion plays a big part in Anna's coming-of-age in Love Like Poison (2010)
Katell Quillévéré claims to have been inspired by the Serge Gainsbourg song Un poison violent for her debut feature, and an early lyric offers the perfect rhythm for a coming-of-age story; "an alternating movement from appetite to disgust and disgust to appetite, from appetite to disgust and disgust to appetite." The poison spoken of by Gainsbourg, and in turn by Quillévéré, is perhaps temptation, or love itself. Anna (Clara Augarde) is 14 and at the dawn of her sexual awakening. An early scene sees her talking with an older friend named Sabine (Margaux Louineau) who is going away for the summer and meeting a "hot" 19-year-old boy. She smokes, dresses skimpily and is clearly more advanced than Anna, if noticeably less mature. It's never explicitly stated but I gathered from this scene that Sabine plans to lose her virginity to this boy, and her sexual confidence inadvertently places pressure on Anna, a plainer yet prettier girl, who is struggling with the concept of love in the absence of her father. But Anna is certainly aware of boys; attraction is proposed in the very first scene when she swaps a glance with Pierre (Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil) during a Church service.
Quillévéré has acknowledged the influence of French auteur Maurice Pialat, especially his 1983 masterpiece À nos amours - not only in the stunning physical resemblance between Augarde and the young Sandrine Bonnaire, but also in details of the plot. Suzanne (Bonnaire) was already sexually active in Pialat's film, hopping from boy to boy in search of emotional fulfillment but falling deeper into carnal emptiness, yet her home life shares many similarities with Anna's - notably in the mother (religious) and father (atheist) who are separated and hold repressed resentment for the other, always fighting in each others company. The naturalism of Pialat is also present in this film, yet Quillévéré lends her story its own distinct quietness and sense of emotional space. The photography, by DP Tom Harari, is beautiful, but it never announces itself as such or overpowers the characters. My favorite scene saw Anna walking with the village Priest Father François (Stefano Cassetti) across a hilly green landscape, engaging in realistic conversation about her internal confusion. The mise-en-scène is simple but incredibly evocative. It takes skill to create intimacy in such wide spaces and hone in on the individual emotions of the characters, but Quillévéré manages the task like a pro.
What also impressed me was Quillévéré's dedication to each character. Many coming-of-age stories focus solely on the awakening protagonist, but Love Like Poison also spends considerable time with Father François, Pierre and grandfather Jean (Michel Galabru), who is sadly less developed but no less memorable. Pierre and Anna's relationship is drawn with flowering innocence - he wants to kiss her but at first is too forceful, inconsiderate of her delicacy. Later he gives her room to feel confident and relaxed, learning from his mistakes, and she makes the first move. "Take this off" she orders, pointing at his shirt with a stick. He does so, and asks that she do the same. She unbuttons her blouse and they kiss again. A few days later he plays her a song on his guitar. They kiss. She feels comfortable with her own form around Pierre, but less so at home - one creepily striking scene sees her presenting her crotch to grandfather Jean, who is dying and wishes once again to see the place he came from (Anna, in her naivety, first thinks he means the town where he was born). Father François is clearly struggling with a crisis of faith and in the most powerful scene breaks down on his bed, crying during prayer. The camera simply observes as he weeps into his hands; vulnerability is rarely evoked with such honesty.
But the real reason to see the film, which also contains a beautifully choral soundtrack, is Augarde's stunning lead performance, which is understated, thoughtful and naked - sometimes literally. It's a brave turn which will surely be remembered as one of the best debuts of all time, such is the control with which she unfolds Anna's sexual awakening. Her performance largely exists behind rounded, soulful eyes, which Quillévéré trains her camera on, aware of the intense emotion they hold. The film ends on a simple smile, to Scala & Kolacny Brothers' cover of Radiohead's Creep. The simple piano melody plays over her face as the screen fades to black and the song suddenly makes a different kind of sense. That's a rare feat to pull off too, and another reason to see Love Like Poison, a powerful and personal work from an interesting filmmaker who will surely emerge onto the world stage in a big way during the next decade...