LOVE LIKE POISON (15): On General Release Friday 13th May
In the 1950s and 1960s, before the advent of triple X rated cinemas, those in pursuit of a skin flick would flock to the arthouses specialising in European imports; an area of exhibition where attitudes to nudity, and indeed sex, were generally not as restricted and consequently less averse to the occasional breast or, if you were particularly lucky, a pubic triangle. To some extent, not that much has changed, though our neighbours on the continent can now also lay claim to a less stringent approach to showing adolescent flesh, a concession Hollywood will probably resist for some decades to come.
This is not to say that Love Like Poison is in any way guilty of exploitation or an unseemly focus on its central protagonist’s pubescent body, rather it’s to draw attention to the liberal minded traditions of arthouse cinema to which the film most certainly belongs, both in terms of its languid pace and its narrative concerns.
Deriving its original title (Un Poison Violent) from a Serge Gainsbourg song, director Katell Quillévéré immediately establishes a pessimistic perspective of love; Anna’s (Clara Augarde) parents are undergoing a painful separation while her grandfather (Michel Galabru) lives out his days confined to his bedroom, pining for his beloved wife long since dead. However, where adults falter in matters of the heart, the young succeed, the spritely and precociously confident Pierre (Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil) a reciprocal well of adoration and devotion.
On the verge of taking her confirmation, Anna is torn between France’s own unique brand of provincial middle-class Catholicism and her irrepressible urges, visually expressed by frottaging a pillow one minute and washing her hair the other after finally allowing the unrelenting Pierre to kiss her. Not that cleanliness necessarily ends up being next to Godliness; after washing her grandfather head to toe with a flannel, Anna looks up to find she has inadvertently induced an erection, naturally sending her scarpering from the room.
The film ends with the Scala choir’s choral rendition of Radiohead’s Creep, lyrically encapsulating Anna’s inner conflict with its lament, “I want to have control / I want a perfect body / I want a perfect soul”. It’s a shame The Social Network beat Love Like Poison to the post, particularly given the song bares a far greater relation to the latter. Nonetheless, it is an appropriately haunting ode handed a new context (not to mention the neat parallel between the cover’s pseudo religiosity and the themes explored in the film): the desire to give oneself away even when that compulsion is in stark opposition to a doctrine on which you were raised.
Steeped in the cinematic traditions of Rivette and Bresson, Love Like Poison doesn’t break any new ground and suffers from somewhat anonymous direction but the performances and dialogue are well realised and tightly constructed despite some questionable scenarios and motivations which veer on the contrived when otherwise intent on naturalism. Clara Augarde and Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil both deserve special mention, displaying remarkable promise and intelligence for such young performers in difficult roles, particularly Augarde on whom the entire film rests.