Friday, 3 June 2011

Love Like Poison (Un Poison Violent)

I was absolutely captivated by the sensibility, beauty and sharpness of focus of Love Like Poison (Un Poison Violent), a very assured first feature film by Katell Quillévéré, although she has done three short films. Judging from it, I will impatiently wait for her next one.

At home for the holidays, Anna finds out that her father (Thierry Neuvic) had left, leaving behind her mother, Jeanne (Lio), a very embittered and depressed woman who seeks solace on Father François (Stefano Cassetti), the local “9 to 5” attitude priest, also a childhood friend.

Clara Augarde is astounding as Anna Falguères, a 14 year old girl rapidly growing in a rural French village (the film was shot at Brasparts, Finistère, near the West coast), learning how to cope with being the object of desire for the young, Pierre (Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil) - a choir boy who does not care much about God, and the old, her beloved grandfather (François Bernard) – a young at heart man who brightens her days and still having an eye for the ladies: knowing he is going to die soon, he asks her to see the place where he came from, “Your village?” she asks, “No” he replies. One late night, just before his death, she quietly complies with his wish before slipping away to her own bed, and, ultimately, to the boarding school she had been sent to save her from the continuous arguments and fights between her mother, a devote Catholic, and her father, a non-believer.

Even her mother, no longer the “pretty young thing” she once was – a point reiterated several times in the film, sees Anna as, to some extent, an object of desire too, perhaps a desire to recapture her rapidly vanishing youth as Anna's womanhood grows on a parallel track, as hinted in a key scene where she is confronted by Anna, naked but by her panties, provoking her jealousy for Anna's young and burgeoning beauty in full display, jealousy exacerbated by the girl's closeness to her father.

However, Anna soon learns the ways of the grown-ups, when her dream of going to live with her father , a dream that perhaps he unwittingly led her on to get a smile on her face, is dashed in a late night phone conversation ending with her slapping the receiver down. Her own relationship with her mother changes dramatically from taking her as her confident, when at home, as we know very little from her life at the boarding school apart from one scene where we see the girls waking up in the common dormitory, to open hostility, fuelled by her desire to live with her father. The opening scene of Un Poison Violent sets the tone of the film, where we see Anna's roving eyes as the adults chat about hers and Jeanne's prospects at a meal after Paul, her father, had left; eyes pondering, eyes delving behind the adults' façades.

She is also learning how to cope with her own objects of desire, with her own developing sexuality, comparing her breasts with those of her mother, with those of her mother when she was her own age, coping with her awkward feelings towards Pierre, towards God, towards the conflict between her religious mother and her atheist father, between carnal desire and religion, a theme delved in a conversation between her and Father François. That conflict reaches a crescendo at her confirmation ceremony, where she collapses in front of the bishop, overwhelmed not only by her own feelings and the fight within her heart, but also by the macabre nature of Catholic religious imagery.

Anna's awkward consciousness and insecurity of her own body, of her own sexuality, a target not only for the predatory male gaze, but also of furtive female eyes, reaches a crescendo in an encounter with the choirboy, Pierre, a target of her own desire, when she lies down on a stone where the earth can be heard rotating, as her grandfather taught her. The development of her sexuality undergoes a key transformative moment when she reads a poem for the funeral of her grandfather, inspired by his attitude and enjoyment of the sensuality of life, a poem where she openly acknowledges her own body, her femaleness, in front of an audience, hardly lifting her eyes from the poem, broken voice, tears flowing down her face, quivering lips... but she did it, no longer a child but then a young woman, not totally sure on her feet, but already walking as such.

The closing scene, after a feeble and rather comical attempt to whistle at Pierre's window to get him to come out to take a walk with her, a request he accedes as if he were conceding a favour to her, swaggering like a peacock, constitutes a hint of not only her assertion of her femaleness, but also of the shape of things to come, the predatory male, the not-so-compliant female, of the crosses she will have to carry as she enters into that mysterious and, sometimes, frightening world of adulthood, her roving eyes saying as much on that opening sequence.

Un Poison Violent is a very accomplished coming of age film, a genre on which French film makers excel. The cinematography is not that of the France of holiday postcards, but the greyness and wetness of everyday life, a somewhat melancholic palette.

I tweeted as soon as I left the cinema, I said that I came home with a smile on my face, the smile that surges from within when I just see life in front of my eyes, when I see a child first steps into this world of ours...


Director's interview

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