Ivorian director, Katell Quillévéré’s first feature, Love Like Poison is a tender coming of age tale set amid the religious fervour of small-town Brittany.
Praying for Salvation by Laura Bennett
Love Like Poison (Un Poison Violent) begins as a young teenage girl, Anna, returns from a distant boarding school to her family home nestled among Brittany’s undulating hills. In her absence there has been a great change in her world. Her father, Paul, has moved out, choosing to leave her mother, Jeanne, partly, as we later find out, because he struggles to understand the strength of his wife’s commitment to the Christian faith.
Anna’s life is now full of uncertainty. Having also been brought up in the church she is about to undergo her first communion but is thrown into doubt. Her close relationship with her paternal grandfather, Jean, is also a concern. Left behind in the family home by his son, he is bedridden and, despite a certain bawdy twinkle in his eye, looks to be destined to meet his maker tout de suite. All this is coupled with the usual anxiety of any normal adolescence; Anna’s more worldly-wise female friend is a covert smoker and talks lustily about boys, while her friend Pierre is keen to be much more than just that, as he attempts to cajole her into a little exploration…
Anna’s turmoil and confusion forms the backbone of the film as she tries to come to terms with her emerging new existence. Clara Augarde was chosen for the role of Anna from 400 girls by Quillévéré who was originally looking for a dark-haired girl, but was struck by Augarde’s combination of innocence and maturity. She delivers an outstanding performance of light and shade that seems to effortlessly convey the hesitancy and disorientation of her character.
Although plot twists are few and far between, Love Like Poison offers an interesting take on the role of the Catholic Church in rural France. Attending two funerals and her own communion, Anna’s life at home is defined by such events. Two of the three ends in her fainting however, overcome with emotion at the pomp and ceremony of the ritual, much to the embarrassment of her mother, who selfishly takes it as a personal affront.
The town’s priest, Père François, is a valued member of the community, at one stage playing an improvised game of football with the local boys. After the departure of her husband, Jeanne searches for solace in her faith, leaning on Père François for support in a way which begins to border on the inappropriate. It’s no surprise that Anna is struggling to come to terms with the boundaries of her own beliefs!
Quillévéré confirms that this theme owes nothing to chance, “religion exacerbates the contradiction between one line of conduct that is imposed upon someone, and the impulses which drive us.” She goes on to confirm that her casting choices were also motivated by a wish to choose actors whose bodies betrayed a certain sexual energy, something which the Catholic Church may try to smother but which she felt would immediately be captured by the camera. This is at the heart of Anna’s struggle; she senses this sexual energy but at her young age is unable to process or to reconcile it with the teachings of the church. Her own religious fervour often borders on the erotic as, one night she goes to sleep with a picture of Christ clasped next to the burgeoning breasts she later shows off timidly to Pierre in a gentle woodland scene.
As if to underline the other-worldly, spiritual aspect of the film, Love Like Poison’s soundtrack is hard to miss. Opening in church against a rousing congregational hymn and closing with an eccentric choral arrangement of Radiohead’s Creep, it’s no wonder that Anna is confused. The strength and quality of the various voices layering throughout the film serve to strike a melancholic and luminous note, as recognised by the director.
Love Like Poison is certainly not a film that will have audiences on the edges of their seats, but having been declared a critical hit at Cannes in 2010 it offers much promise in the shape of its debutante director. Quillévéré’s sensitive and resonant handling of this young girl’s struggle, as well as an impressive rendition from a highly-talented young actress, bode well for the near future of French cinema.
Love Like Poison (Un Poison Violent) is released in the UK on May 13th, 2011