Have you ever tried to sum up someone you know in a few words? It’s tough. To a man, we’re a mess of contradictions, lies and wonders, and to pretend otherwise is folly. And yet I’ve just spent many minutes of my life trying to encapsulate Katell Quillévéré. There’s biographical: French. Writer. Director. Debut. Woman. These are all right, but not right enough. The adjectives: Beguiling. Tough. Wary. Weary. Engaged. Thoughtful. Again, there’s nothing untrue, but it’s not enough. They’re all just a shade. Here’s what I settled on, and it’s a bit of a cheat: wholehearted.
There’s something about Katell that’s all-encompassing, both in her film and in person. She eats sugar cubes whole. She has a full-throated laugh. She’s just so French. And there’s this: “I would like to make each film as if it were the one and only I’d ever made.” After watching Katell’s debut Love Like Poison, it’s hard not to understand what she means. It’s like she’s a soaked towel, and everything that she’s wrung out of herself is the film. What appears on the surface to be a typical coming-of-age drama about a fourteen-year-old girl in a sleepy Breton town is a pointed rejection of Catholicism, depicting it as a morally corrupting, perverting presence. It’s sad, lovely and quietly daring. It’s one of the most promising debuts of recent years.
Love Like Poison is also a sexually frank, emotionally honest story of adolescent awakening. Anna, an impressive Clara Augarde, grows close to an atheist choirboy, and they discover sex in a way that is both unashamed and yet horribly fumbling and awkward. It feels real, in other words. Katell was keen to avoid either idolising teen sex or being alarmist about it. “I tried to be as honest and as truthful as possible and didn’t want to portray today’s youth as very liberated when it comes to sex. I don’t think it’s true. For me, sexuality is something that frightens everybody and is hard for everybody and the idea that you’re going to give yourself up to somebody else is very, very scary.”
It’s a refreshing perspective, considering how culture usually portrays teenage sexuality. She points out, “In France, people are terribly worried that the attitude of young people towards sex is decadent and that everybody’s doing it, but in fact the average age at which people lose their virginity in France is seventeen, as it has been for the last thirty years. It hasn’t gone up or down.”
It’s the personal truthfulness that makes Love Like Poison invigorating. Katell is anxious to point out that the film is not autobiographical, but it’s hard to believe its events have no relation to her. It has the quality of a painful memory, filled with scores of moments that feel true, rather than the product of a narrative. This is perhaps a greater achievement than a straight memoir. The film captures how boring and magical it is to be fourteen.
“What is based on reality is the journey that Anna goes on in relation to her faith,” Katell says. Anna’s pious existence is questioned when she realises that her religion forbids her burgeoning sexuality, something Katell identifies with. “It is very difficult for a teenager discovering her own sexuality to have to deal with Catholic teaching. In Catholicism you have a particular relationship with the body and with guilt. It’s a relationship of conflict that goes back to the dawn of time. Love Like Poison is a film that suggests that rather than managing your body, you can be your body. You can embody it.”
She was dismayed at how little has changed since she went through the same experiences as Anna. She tells a story about a church she visited when researching the film, “It’s full every week to a thousand people and instilling guilt. It’s a violent act.” This is why she set out to create something modern. “I always wanted to set it in the present because it does have a contemporary dimension. I wanted to talk about young people today.”
Katell’s insistence on the film’s status as fiction is unsurprising considering its uncompromising look at Anna’s family. Her blossoming sexuality awakens different reactions in each: fear, anger, even attraction. “They’re all at a point in their life when they have to rethink and reassess. It’s a film about crises, not just the classic adolescent puberty crisis, but that these difficult things reappear throughout your life.” Anna’s puberty doesn’t just affect her, but illuminates the compromises and regrets of an adult world. This hints at something deeper and unspoken in Katell. She discusses her family’s fears at having an artist in the family, and her relief when the film was well received at Cannes, as it meant her family could be pleased about it. “If the film hadn’t done well, it would have been much harder for me.” She admits that they haven’t spoken to her about the film’s content, which she expected. “It’s too difficult for them, too complicated, and I respect that.”
It would be a shame if Katell’s relations haven’t reflected on the film, as you get the feeling that they’re the ones who it’s ultimately for. There’s an understanding, if not quite forgiveness, towards her family and the complications of her youth, even if those complications are different to those in the film. Love Like Poison is a film about the past made by someone who has managed to let go of it. She’s not advocating a violent rebellion. “Anna’s journey is not explosive. She winds her way towards where she’s going. That’s how my generation had to find its own way and its own voice, unlike the generation of my parents—the strikes of 1968 and all those upheavals. Today it is not so much a matter of taking sides. The film is in a sense saying: become yourself. It’s trying to say that you need to learn to speak your own truth and to do it gently.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Six. Photograph by Des Tan. To read the original article click here.