Coming of age dramas are as synonymous with French cinema as socio-economic films about class divides are to the independent British film industry. This long running love affair began with The 400 Blows, which sparked not only this genre but a revolution across cinemas around Europe, all the way to more contemporary fare such as the lesser heralded but no less poignant; Blame it on Fidel and Water Lilies. It’s no doubt a well trodden path but for good reason as the subject matter has a mysterious ability to continually charm and engage us as an audience. The scenery may change and as generations fly by the rules may become more liberal but despite the constantly evolving transitions of these rites of passage, the confusion and awkwardness of the progression from childhood to adulthood is something that is ever present and instantly recognisable – indeed it’s something that regardless of sex, race or beliefs we can all identify with in one way or another....
When 14-year-old Anna (Clara Augarde) returns home from her Catholic boarding school for the summer holidays, she discovers that things aren’t quite as they should be in her quiet rural household. Her father has finally flown the family nest, leaving her distraught mother seeking consolation through her faith; specifically from the village’s young priest, Father Francois. Perhaps to escape these external dilemmas, or in an attempt to fill the recent father shaped void in her life, Anna, in no less a charitable action, decides to take on the responsibility of caring for her ill grandfather, who may well be at death’s door but certainly isn’t lacking in youthful verve or spirit.
As the long summer days unwind, she begins to submerge herself in a series of romantic rendezvous with neighbouring altar boy Pierre. This exploration of her budding sexuality only exacerbates her already turbulent inner struggle dealing with adolescence. Combined with the fact that her conformation is just days away, she is torn between advancing herself sexually or spiritually…
The most striking element of this film is undoubtedly the exceptional performance coaxed out of acting debutant Clara Augarde. This young girl has been thrown straight into the deep end with this unconventionally honest role, yet she comes across ever the professional, looking like a well honed actress with the world at her feet. She appears in almost every shot and, perhaps down to her closeness in age with the character, she deals with these awkward pubescent moments with a quality of natural performance rarely seen. Many teenage girls would justifiably run a mile if asked to perform some of the film’s incredibly personal and revealing scenes, yet Augarde commendably takes it in her stride, impressively shifting between the fragility of a child and the staunch defiance of a newly empowered woman.
This slow and subtle drama certainly aims to be more than just a mere coming of age tale, instead evolving into a deceptively slight portrait of natural human behaviour. Most crucially, showcasing our constant struggle against carnal urges through the self-imposed chains we use to restrain ourselves, whether it be through laws, religion or just a sense of common decency. Despite the heavy focus on young Anna, there is definitely a wealth of other well rounded characters from which the film derives its narrative.
As well as Anna’s fragile family dynamic, there’s the rather interesting sub plot involving the young girl’s mother and the priest. Both seem to acknowledge that there’s a mutually reciprocated attraction, but, due to their strong religious values, it is never consummated. Indeed, it is this portrayal of various troubled relationships, by director Katell Quillévéré that separates Love Like Poison from similar, yet more singularly focused tales of such youthful trials. In particular, the divisive use of Pierre, the young boy Anna becomes transfixed with, is of great interest – the similarities with himself and Anna’s father turns an otherwise sweet (if not slightly awkward and fumbling) relationship into a haunting depiction of how fatally flawed we are as human beings, continually repeating the mistakes of our forefathers.
As to be expected, one of the central themes explored here is the bond between mother and daughter. Not only do they share the wealth of the screen time, but theirs is also the most complex and engaging of all the relationships on show here. With one discovering her new found womanhood and the other’s biological clock counting down rapidly, their mirroring physical changes makes for an emotionally charged series of encounters.
Music, too, plays a huge role in Quillevere’s first feature film. Its title literally translates as ‘The Violent Poison’ and come from a Serge Gainsborough song that focuses on the tension love can create, pulling apart families. It’s perhaps the use of traditional folk music, all sang by women, that is the most interesting, acting as a comforting collection of ‘words of wisdom’ to reassure us that Anna’s problems are as old as time.
Anna’s grandfather adds some much needed light relief; however, it’s a role which is underdeveloped and could have a lot more to offer than just the jovial offhand remarks we are privy to. His atheist, and light-hearted beliefs could have lead to a viewpoint on the issues of love and sexual desires unhindered by religious constraints that would have helped engage the film to a wider audience – who may otherwise find the heavy use of Catholicism a little too suffocating and alien to relate with.
There is also a disappointing lack of dramatic conflict considering the heightened anxiety that broods behind each interaction within this quaint Breton parish. Whilst this slow burning build up creates an interesting and initially gripping level of tension, the lack of any final emotive explosion or conclusive scene of redemption leaves an unremarkable taste, which does little to separate it from recent films such as Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes; another beautifully shot film steeped in questionable religious traditions, which equally takes an impartial viewpoint after initially promising to do much more with the subject matter.
This empathetic vision of adolescence, whilst a competent piece of searching filmmaking, ultimately lacks enough confrontation to make its detached mood stay with you any further than the end credits. Whilst this quintessentially introspective coming of age drama certainly holds its own, it could have doubtlessly made more of the existential aroma or religion it shrouds itself in. More is the pity as Quillevere and Augarde are, based on the flashes of brilliance shown in this their debut feature, certainly both names to watch out for.