Love Like Poison, translated from Serge Gainsbourg’s song, Un Poison Violent C’est Ca L’Amour, is the first feature from director Katell Quillévéré. A heartfelt film, quiet but confident, about the moments and months when you lose your childhood innocence.
Receiving unexpected critical acclaim at Cannes this time last year, Love Like Poison tells the story of a young girl on the brink of her sexual awakening, who is stuck one summer amid her mother’s pain after her father has left. Anna, played by Clara Augarde, is supposed to be preparing for her Holy Communion, but instead falls in love. Her relationship with Pierre, several inches shorter than she (as is the way with fourteen year old boys and girls), depicts love when it was all awkward kisses and showing your boobs to a boy, praying they liked what they saw. To Quillévéré’s sincere credit, nothing in the film is melodramatised or exaggerated; she represents youth, pain and first sexual experiences as is, no rose tinted glasses or romanticised nostalgia.
Anna is an only child, and suffers in part, silently. She finds companionship with her Grandpa (Michel Galabru) – for all intents and purposes, a dirty old man, but with a kind heart and wise words, who manages to see the funny side. In quiet and confused moments, Anna becomes a woman, gaining a confidence and vitality that her mother envies and struggles to accept. Love Like Poison is a beautiful portrayal of adolescence with an honesty reserved for a director’s first film. i-D Online spoke with Quillévéré about growing pains, growing up and growing old.
How personal is the film to you? Is it based on your experiences? It’s my first feature and I wrote it in a really instinctive way. I always knew it would be a story about a young girl and the contradiction between where she comes from and where she wants to go. I always knew she would be raised in a Catholic family and that it would be an emancipatory movie. It’s not an autobiographical story but I was a believer when I was a child and I lost this faith when I was 13 or 14 and it was a really strong experience in my life, in the construction of my personality and my discovery of cinema so I think my first film feature couldn’t really speak about anything else.
The title is a Serge Gainsbourg lyric, Un Poison Violent, translated to Love Like Poison, why did you choose this? In Gainsbourg’s song he uses this expression to define love and in a more personal way to me, this title refers to everything that makes us feel alive, including things that can make us suffer. It’s a contradictory impulse that guides our relation to the world. For Anna the poison is falling in love, a strong feeling that makes you feel completely alive, but in a way really endangers you.
There are some awkward, sexualised scenes between Anna and her grandfather, how do you see their relationship? I think the relationship between Anna and her grandfather is really positive. This old man helps her to go through this experience. For me it’s something really simple: an old man whose body reflects the pleasure of having lived life to the full and now he’s going through his last experience, death. And he has a strong wish before he dies, he would like to see a naked woman for the last time, and he cannot ask this of anybody else but Anna. It has nothing to do with incest or anything like that. And she understands, it’s a question of gifts, it could be the most Christian scene of the movie.
Everything in the film is very real, it feels as though you’re there, watching it happen, not watching a film about it happening. How did you achieve that? It’s hard to explain, there’s no method. To direct actors is something really instinctive and different with everybody. My job was to get close to them and to find a way to help them to give themselves, their own truths. For Clara, who played Anna, she was 13 or 14 when the filming started so she was a real teenager discovering sexuality for real, and I had this feeling that I was also making a documentary about what she was going through in real life. Sometimes what the actors give you may be more interesting and rich than what you wrote in your script.
Which character do you empathise with most? I have empathy for every character of the movie. I find myself in every character. It’s really difficult for Anna’s mother to get over 40 years in age and to lose the love of her husband, it’s something really hard that many women have to go through and at this time of her life she’s not able to raise her child, she’s not able to be generous because she’s suffering too much. It’s hard for a woman to see her teenage girl having all of life in front of her and becoming a woman.
What do you think is the hardest part of growing up? I think the most difficult thing about being a teenager is that you have to put some distance between you and the adults who raised you. You’re going to discover solitude, you discover what freedom can mean, and solitude is indirectly a part of freedom. It’s very difficult, to be strong enough to be yourself and to assume this in front of the people who raised you. And the other difficult thing is to fall in love and to be able to let yourself go, because you’re going into the unknown.
How do you feel about the film now it’s completed? I haven’t watched the film for a really long time. I couldn’t, I think I would just see all the mistakes. I made this movie in a really deep, sincere way, and that’s the way I want to make all the others. I’m currently finishing the writing of the next one.
Love Like Poison is released on Friday, 13th May.