There's something of Catherine Breillat about the frank French coming-of-age tale Love Like Poison, although debutant writer-director Katell Quillévéré comes over as rather the inverse of her senior colleague: here, the characters come first, and any thesis on female sexuality must follow from that. Throughout Love Like Poison, there's a commitment to the specifics of what it feels like for this girl (Clara Augarde's 14-year-old Anna) at this time (the summer in the run-up to her confirmation) in this place, the home in the Breton countryside she shares with an unhappy mother (Lio) and a fleshy, farting grandpapa (Michel Galabru). Peaks and troughs, mostly, mirrored in the hilly, coastal landscape Anna strolls through with the local priest (Stefano Cassetti), trying to work through her fears and desires: a first kiss with a moptopped contemporary who, true to the French arthouse tradition, turns up to one date pushing a battered moped, the evident terror she displays when confronted by an open grave at a neighbour's funeral.
The raw materials, then, are sex and death, but Quillévéré avoids sensationalism by absorbing as a secondary influence the charcoal-like Maurice Pialat, and more specifically that legendarily uncompromising filmmaker's recurring conflict between the spirit and the perishable flesh. Love Like Poison is grounded by the physicality of these performances: Galabru's vast back, Augarde's confrontationally budding breasts, Lio's (Bowie-coloured) sad eyes and downturned mouth. Everybody on screen is rounded in some way, and Quillévéré gives herself earthly mysteries to explore. Why does the mother cry? Why is the priest so tormented? Why would the grandfather want Anna to expose herself to him, and why - after consideration - would she consent to so doing? Blame it on the hormones, maybe: these characters are certainly rare in seeming to have internal organs, their own complex inner workings. Refer it up to God, even: part of Quillévéré's project is to put across something of the severity of High Religion in this part of the world, and its impact on the very impressionable.
We get this, but the downside is that the film scarcely seems to countenance that growing up and discovering your sexuality can be fun. (Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Mr. Catholic Guilt.) As with Pialat, Love Like Poison risks torturousness: it draws towards its conclusion with a teary rendition of a risque song at a funeral, at which moment the lines Quillévéré draws between sex, suffering and sorrow are finally completed, and the Breillat thesis - that popping your cherry, like losing your religion, is a pretty grim business - is bought into once and for all. Such resignation is counterbalanced (and to some extent, contradicted) by the best sequences in the picture, charting Anna's courting by her first boyfriend - a lad, perfectly embodied by Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil, as titchy as all boys must surely appear to young women of a certain height and disposition. We cannot be sure if Quillévéré is going forward into the light or the dark, or whether she'll continue to finesse the balancing of the two she attempts here, but for the time being, Love Like Poison stands as a very promising debut for both its director and its leading actress: Augarde's Anna, never simply the vamp or patsy Breillat would have her down as, emerges as wilful, yearning, vulnerable, defiant. A real young girl, indeed.
Love Like Poison opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.