Sunday, 29 May 2011

'Love Like Poison' review:

The bombast rituals of Catholicism cause Clara Augarde's fourteen year old Anna to faint twice in 'Love Like Poison'. The first time is at a funeral, with the intense, haunting chants of the bereaved seemingly too much to bear, and the second time is on an alter during the final stages of her own abortive confirmation. Director Katell Quillévéré's debut feature opens in similar fashion, with Anna refusing to receive the "body of Christ" during mass - her mouth firmly closed. Anna is reluctant to give herself up to the church, perhaps in favour of giving herself up to a local boy, though she is hardly a devout non-believer either. She clutches to religious symbols, even placing a crucifix above the bed of her ailing, atheist grandfather (Michel Galabru) to safeguard his immortal soul. It's a film of internal conflict, exacerbated by the throes of puberty as Anna discovers sexual desire.

In spite of its slender 90 minute running time, 'Love Like Poison' manages to express a lot without feeling hurried. Anna has time to confide in the local priest (Stefano Cassetti), row with her neurotic and jealous mother (Lio) and tend to her dying grandfather - a farting mess of bodily functions who makes some troubling, even incestuous, requests of the blossoming teenager. Anna's parents have also recently separated and she is unhappy at boarding school - leading to several tender scenes with her father (Thierry Neuvic). Meanwhile, her mother has a thing for the priest, who in turn has his own crisis of faith - perhaps wishing he's pursued life as a footballer rather than a man of the cloth.

What makes the film such compelling viewing is that it's non-judgemental and made richer by the moral ambiguity of much of the action. When Anna's grandfather gets an erection whilst she is bathing him, it's undoubtedly embarrassing and creepy (Anna herself runs away screaming), but is it inherently immoral? We're certainly not encouraged to think so by this compassionate film which empathises with all of its characters - and none more so than this lecherous, irreligious old man. It's this refusal to accept moral absolutism that is the most telling anti-Catholic facet of 'Love Like Poison', more effective even than a scene in which a craggy-faced old bishop sermonises about sin to a room full of bored teenagers. Though, as with last year's 'Lourdes', the film is ultimately more respectful than it is incendiary - subtly satirical rather than hectoring or confrontational.

With an unfussy, intimate and naturalistic directorial style, punctuated by several elegant single-take tracking shots, which perfectly suit her nuanced characters and eye for detail, Quillévéré establishes her cinematic voice with well-placed confidence. It's no surprise that the director caused such a stir in Cannes when the film premiered at last year's festival, with 'Love Like Poison' not only serving as a fine piece of cinema, but also as a calling card for a potential major talent. It's also another intriguing entry in a recent (if only tangentially related) strand of French cinema exploring crisis of religious faith, joined not only by the aforementioned 'Lourdes', but also by 'Of Gods and Men' and even Jacques Audiard's 'Un Prophete'. These films engage with the concept of "faith" without superficiality, in extreme contrast to Hollywood where the term is smothered by received wisdom and unpalatable smugness. You might not know what you're supposed to think after seeing 'Love Like Poison'. But therein lies its appeal and its greatest strength.

'Love Like Poison' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on limited release in the UK now.

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