Sunday, April 17, 2011

French Double Feature

There are innumerable features built around the coming of age story of a teen-aged protagonist. A substantial portion of them are centred around protagonists with separated parents. Love Like Poison stands out by virtue of its unusual emphasis on pubescent body anxiety, and its intersection with relationships (romantic, friendly and familial) and religious faith. I don't think I've ever seen a more honest or probing examination of this part of adolescence: too often film-makers focus entirely on the emotional difficulties of negotiating new relationships and forming an adult identity.

It's somewhat disappointing then that not all of the supporting characters are offered such invigorating material - to be sure the mother's anxieties cast a different light on her daughter's but I'm not sure I really needed to see the story of yet another priest dealing with carnal temptation as part of that. Which is not to say that the relationship is poorly handled. That their quiet negotiations, advances and retreats are left unspoken is refreshing and compensates adequately for the lack of novel insight.

Katell Quillévéré's camera is similarly understated throughout much of the film, although its sequences are shot in such a way to bring out their emotional centres. For example a night-wandering sequence is captured in much the same way as that of a tense scene from a horror film: Our heroine stalks carefully down the stairs, making no noise lest she wake the sleeping mother-beast. It's scenes like this that show just how in tune Quillévéré is with the adolescent mindset.

Of Gods and Men succeeds nicely in its first half in establishing the way in which the monks' faith is practised and lived out within the wider community. This is achieved through a number of simple but touching scenarios in which the actors do an excellent job at fleshing out and complicating underwritten, narrow characterisations. Similarly the writer-director (Xavier Beauvois) and his principles do a good job of establishing the monk's own connections to each other, building a sense of a brotherly, close-knot community through both narrative and formal devices. The camera pans between monks as often as it cuts and this serves to link them to each other in a clever, understated way.

It's greatly disappointing then that the film grows increasingly didactic and heavy-handed as the threat approaches and the monks begin to argue about whether they should stay or go. The need for the monks to stay and be with their community is hammered into the ground even as, paradoxically, the community is increasingly relegated to an off screen role. Big set pieces also become more prominent and while some, such as the first appearance of the enemy fighters, are successful, the majority are overblown attempts at yanking our heartstrings.Ultimately Beauvois just has too narrow a statement to make about what religious duty means and how it is be lived out in the world and not enough trust in his audience to pick these threads out of simple, unadorned incident.

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