Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 15, 2011 6:49 pm 
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A muted Breton coming of age

In her first feature Katell Quillévéré focuses on a voluptuous red-headed fourteen-year-old girl on summer vacation in Brittany who has to deal with familiar issues of that age. A grandfather dies, a boy makes mild sexual overtures, her estranged parents fight and when she comes home, she finds her father no longer living there. Her mother has trouble coping and appeals to an attractive young Italian-born priest. She is supposed to be preparing for her confirmation in the Church, but doesn't know if Catholicism is her thing.

Love Like Poison (Un poison violent) seems to bear an over-dramatic label. Except for some moments on nudity and a mild seduction scene between the young boy and girl, the film takes few risks and could have been made decades earlier. Its meandering scene structure will raise the blood pressure of few and there are no strong climactic moments. Its strength is perhaps also there: that stylistic neutrality and unobtrusive storytelling allow for a naturalistic effect enhanced by a sense of place. Its underlying conflicts may be best understood by French Catholics with a provincial background who would best sympathize with what Anna is going through as summer progresses and her confirmation date approaches.

As Anna, the girl, Clara Augarde is also natural, beautiful without seeming like an actress. The men are manly, the priest, Père François (Stefano Cassetti) visibly athletic and the father (Thierry Neubru) solid and macho. Eighty-something comic Michel Galabru is philosophical and a little raunchy, a real lover of life as the granddad. Most interesting perhaps is Lio as Anna's devout and troubled mother. The actress internalizes her character's conflicts with subtlety.

The boy Anna keeps seeing, Pierre (Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil), is cute and willing. There is nothing extraordinary about him either in the acting or looks departments. Because Anna shows off her well-developed breasts (to us, to her mother and to Pierre) and Pierre is a little smaller and a tad less mature, as is often the way with boys, than she is, the youngsters' potential sexual exploration almost seems like cradle robbing on Anna's part and otherwise inappropriate. But nothing beyond kissing and cuddling seems to happen. If this "love" is "a violent poison," that is in the eyes of the Church, whose views Anna is moving away from.

Love Like Poison is a creditable effort for a first film, and its writing was so much admired that it won the Jean Vigo Award, but it has little to recommend it to the non-French audience. Quilleveré might have focused more on action than on characters. Each scene and person seems designed to illustrated one of the themes of morality, religion, sexuality, coming of age, approaching death -- many of which are focused in a biblical passage read by the bishop (Philippe Duclos) at the confirmation scene in a striking large modern cathedral. (That and a sequence of Anna back in the dorm and bathroom of her boarding school are the most memorably authentic scenes.) But there is not enough urgency in the action or subtlety in the directing to make these issues matter or provide a sense that they are an organic part of cohesive events. Quilleveré is tossing around issues. She has a sense of place that is strong enough to make it seem real, but it doesn't matter enough. A stronger screenplay would have touched on all these issues but brought one of them, presumably sexuality or religion, into the foreground to blast everything else away as issues in a young person's life do.

Location cinematography by Tom Harari is smooth and handsome but , like everything else, unexceptional, and somewhat generic and out of time. One couldn't help recalling the early Cateherine Breillat and think that more has been done with this kind of material decades ago. Quilleveré needs to dare a little more and care a little more. That said, this does provide a look into the world of provincial France that reminds us we don't see enough in a French cinema that focuses so exclusively on what an Eric Rohmer character once called "the center of the world" -- Paris. I found the use of English language folk songs throughout clichéd and obtrusive.

Love Like Poison opened August 4, 2010 in France to decent, kindly reviews. It was seen and reviewed as part of the 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance. The series runs from March 3-13, 2011 in New York with showings at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, the IFC Center in the West Village, and BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

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