French is a more cinematic language than English – any film seems more sophisticated and meaningful if it’s in a foreign language but French has a musically earnest quality that seems to gel more effectively with moving images. If Love Like Poison, the first film from French director Katell Quillévéré, had been made in English with an English cast, it would remain a solid but otherwise unremarkable film about a young girl’s struggle between religion and burgeoning adolescence. As it stands the fact that it is French, with French actors and French dialogue, means the film somehow becomes infused with existential angst and depth of feeling.
Quillévéré’s simple style – free of obviously stylised camera movements and seemingly shot completely handheld, but in a non-shaky way – belies the complex questions this film raises. How much responsibility can a young teenager take for their actions? How is it possible to cope with adult feelings and an almost adult body with the mind of a child? There’s a certain unflinching honesty with which Quillévéré approaches the subject of sexuality in young teens. There’s no explicit scenes, but instead there are scenes with a tense sexual undercurrent running through their very core. One small but important scene in a forest shows the main character Anna (played by Clara Augarde) with a boy who previously pinned her to the ground and kissed her. That scene made for uncomfortable viewing because, while it would seem innocent only a year or two previously, once puberty sets in such an action becomes sexualised and more morally ambiguous. The forest scene, as a result of the former scene, has a sense of danger about it. By the end of the film, Anna seems to have made her choice, and it is a surprising one. But still, the questions remain – is it wrong to give herself over to burgeoning feelings of lust while preparing for the most important religious ceremony of her young life? None of these questions are ever persevered with as much as they perhaps should be – the film provides no answers, just questions.
Loneliness is another key element of this film. Everyone in the film is essentially alone – Anna has only her elderly, half senile grandfather for physical contact; her mother, left by her husband (Anna’s father) while Anna was away at school, seeks solace in confession with a local priest, who is himself also completely alone. Everyone reaches out for tenderness but it’s something that ultimately remains unfulfilled in any meaningful way. The film seems to suggest that religion is a lubricant that gets us through life, and can be used to temporarily cover up emotional wounds, but ultimately those feelings can’t be buried forever. This sentiment is best exemplified by the scene between Anna and Pierre in the bedroom (nicely contrasted by the confirmation scene that follows, in which the bishop extols the virtue of avoiding lust, among other things), or the scene late in the film between Anna’s mother and the priest.
The performances are realistic and the dialogue is natural. The children give excellent performances and the adults round out the cast in a pleasing way. The scenes are short but packed with little details and the film never feels over-long or over-dramatic. It’s perfectly paced and well-directed, which makes it difficult to understand why the film remains somehow distant from the viewer. It’s emotional and it asks lots of questions but remains bland and lacking. A little bit more confrontation, or resolution, would perhaps have made for a more memorable film. Its understated style is its defining feature, but is also the film’s downfall, no matter how brilliant the choral cover song at the end may be.