Love Like Poison (15)

Music does the talking in this tale of a Breton family.

Love Like Poison (15)
dir: Katell Quillévéré

Coming-of-age movies typically regard adolescence as a freak weather condition, a hormonal typhoon encountered on the road to calmer climes. But in Love Like Poison, the first film by the writer-director Katell Quillévéré, everyone is in emotional disarray irrespective of how many miles they have on the clock.

The main focus is Anna (Clara Augarde), a girl in her early teens with long red hair and a pale, watchful face. She's back for the summer from boarding school to the newly broken family home in Brittany, where she is adjusting to the absence of her father and preparing for her impending confirmation. In the first scene, she lines up before the village priest, Père François (Stefano Cassetti), to receive the body of Christ. A sideways glance indicates that she is more interested in the body of the choirboy.

She's trying to square her teenage urges with the purity demanded of her by the Church. Where to go for guidance? Père François is youngish and borderline groovy (he likes a kick-around with the local children), but his informal chat with Anna about crises of faith leaves her none the wiser. Besides, he is wrestling with his own feelings, stirred up by the attentions of Anna's mother, Jeanne (played by Lio, the 1980s French pop star). François could easily have come across as a bit of a drip, so it was smart of Quillévéré to cast Cassetti, who first came to attention playing a real-life serial killer in Roberto Succo and now resembles a photofit picture of Vincent Gallo.

Jeanne is no help to Anna either. When she isn't flirting sadly with François, she is becoming more depressed by the day at the thought of her husband loving another woman. She even confides her suicidal thoughts to Anna. The girl listens with a helpless expression that suggests a skydiver who's forgotten her parachute.

Despite the potential for intensity, Quillévéré has a delicate touch: she keeps the scenes short and elliptical so that they feel more eavesdropped or stumbled upon than staged. Anna's romance with the twinkle-eyed choirboy Pierre (Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil) is engagingly tentative and acts as a minor respite from the anguish of the adult world. Even with butterflies in their tummies they both seem wiser than their elders, and cheerfully fluent in the etiquette of courtship. She keeps him waiting when he calls at her house. He knows that strumming an acoustic guitar is never going to hurt if you're hoping for a kiss.

The other significant relationship in Anna's life is with her vivacious, cotton-wool-haired grandfather Jean (Michel Galabru). She brings him breakfast in bed and opens the window when he breaks wind. If he wants to attract her attention when she is sulking behind her Tintin book, he blasts out a record that begins with the call: "Bonjour, chérie!" She gets the hint. She fetches him a cigar, pulls up a chair next to his and reaches for the Connect 4, all without a word. It's the telepathy of family life.

In the world of Love Like Poison, many of the necessary boundaries between people have fallen away. Jeanne and François go way back, and are more than mere parishioner and priest. Jeanne, resentful that Anna's blossoming has coincided with her own discontent, bursts in deliberately when the girl is in her underwear. There are awkward encounters between grandfather and granddaughter that fall into the same category, but Quillévéré resists shaping the ambiguities of these moments into full-fledged drama. While this gives the impression that nothing much is happening, the reverse is true. There are seismic emotional shifts occurring - it's just that they remain beyond the characters' powers of articulation.

It is left to music, the most reliable instrument of spirituality in the film, to do most of the talking. The soundtrack incorporates three styles of song: the chirpy 1950s French pop that Jean, a man of secular pleasures, spins on his turn­table; choral performances that represent religion, at least until the closing rendition of Radiohead's "Creep"; and the English folk songs that seem to emerge directly from Anna's relationship with the countryside. Even "Greensleeves" sounds rejuvenated as the accompaniment to a montage of the rain-lashed Breton landscape, showing off Tom Harari's cinematography at its most contemplative. l

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.