Perhaps the most depressing things about the financial crisis is that as banks collapsed, governments groaned and the wheels of global capitalism ground momentarily to a halt, nobody stepped forward with an alternative to the current system. For a moment there, the world might have changed and a new system might have been built but instead of forging a new world, governments took money away from poor people and threw it at the rich in the hope that they would return to doing whatever it is that they were doing before the global economy went tits up. This was a failure of the imagination not only on the part of governments but also on the part of political activists and theorists the world over. As global capitalism teetered, stumbled and nearly fell, Margaret Thatcher was proved right: There Is No Alternative.
The idea that there is simply no viable alternative to market capitalism and (more or less) liberal democracy is the most potent defence of the status quo imaginable. Thanks to thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama arguing that we have reached the end of history, alternatives to neoliberalism are strangled at birth. As citizens of liberal democracies, we have certain political options open to us but none of these options are radical because radical options are not viable alternatives. And thus we are free and yet everywhere in chains…
Un Poison Violent, the first feature film by Breton director Katell Quillévéré, is an exploration of the nature of female self-determination in a world where men impose their own limits on what is and is not an acceptable mode of being. Whether in Church or a teenaged bedroom, nowhere can women escape the merciless glare of the male gaze.
Anna Falgueres (Clara Augarde) is a teenager who has returned home from an all-girl boarding school in order to spend the holidays with what is left of her family. I say ‘left of’ as Anna’s parents have recently separated leaving Anna’s mother Jeanne (Lio) to look after her husband’s ailing father Jean (Michel Galabru). Though Jean and Jeanne are never seen on screen together, they are both tangible forces in Anna’s life. On the one hand, Jeanne’s separation from her non-believing husband has prompted her to return to the Catholic Church resulting in Anna initially appearing as a very chaste and Catholic young woman. On the other hand, Jean is a fantastically profane presence in the house who smokes cigars, listens to raunchy songs and openly displays his contempt not only for Jeanne’s religion but also her devout (and spectacularly snobbish) parents. The presence of Jeanne and Jean in the house mean that Anna is torn between living a life of Faith and living a more humanistic existence in which she explores her sexuality. Having introduced Faith and Humanism as the only two options that are open to Anna, Quillévéré then sets about complicating the picture.
The first complication is that Anna’s sexual explorations are far from being unproblematic. For example, when she goes for a walk in the forest with a local boy she quite likes, he winds up holding her down and kissing her. In another scene, she helps to bathe her grandfather only for the camera to spin around and reveal that the old man is sporting a beatific grin and an impressive erection “I feel beautiful!” he sighs as Anna flees the room in horror.
The second complication is beautifully embodied in the person of the local parish priest Father François (Stefano Cassetti). Hidden behind a full beard and unfashionable glasses, François is a handsome man whose heavy accent, compassion and genuine insight into the human condition make him a very compelling figure indeed. So compelling, in fact, that Jeanne begins to fall for him thereby suggesting that her desire to return to the Church might not be due to a renewal of faith so much as a desire to move on from her Husband and enjoy a torrid affair with a man who finds her attractive. Indeed, the chief source of tension between Jeanne and Anna is that Anna is becoming a beautiful woman just as Jeanne is entering middle age. In one powerful scene, Jeanne lets herself into the bathroom while Anna is getting changed in order to see her daughter’s body. Anna reacts angrily and exposes herself “What do you think?” she asks sarcastically, forcing her mother to point out that she doesn’t understand though one suspects that Anna may well have been spot on about her mother’s sudden curiosity.
In the world of Love like Poison, nothing is straightforward. Even the purest of emotions and the lightest of moments can be born of ugliness, compromise and deceit. This sense that everything is somehow tainted and yet still beautiful animates every frame of the film and makes Anna’s journey of self-discovery all the more complex and compelling.
The film’s chief point seems to be that regardless of whether Anna chooses a life of simple Humanistic hedonism or a life of righteous self-abnegation and Faith, the options presented to her are limited by the male power structures that govern the world:
For example, if Anna chooses a life of faith then she would effectively have to surrender her desires to the diktats of a Church ruled not only by men but by men, such as Father François who have their own desires and hungers. The hideousness of this act of surrender is perfectly communicated in a scene where Anna undergoes Confirmation only for the local Bishop to read out a passage in which he distinguishes between the life of the Spirit (a source of happiness, morality and all that is right with the world) and the life of the Flesh (a source of misery, death, violence and madness). The Manichaean absurdity of the Bishop’s dualism not only reminds us of the artificiality of such simple dichotomies, it also suggests how human freedom can be curtailed by the way in which our choices are framed and presented: “Of course you’re free to live a Hedonistic life… as long as you like being insane and miserable!”
Alternately, Anna could choose to live the simple hedonistic life pursued by her grandfather Jean. Unfortunately, the problem with this is that even if Anna does take control of her own sexuality, this control can only be expressed through terms set by men. For example, while the film ends with Anna happily meeting up with her boyfriend, the happiness of this final scene jars with the unpleasantness of the scene in which the same boy holds Anna down in order to take a kiss from her. Indeed, far from alienating Anna, the boy’s forcefulness seems to have encouraged her towards the more Humanistic path. The exploitative nature of sexuality is further expressed through Anna’s relationship with her grandfather who, ambiguously, asks Anna to promise him to let him see “where he came from” before he dies. Anna responds by asking if Jean means the village and Jean enigmatically shakes his head. Clearly, Jean is asking to see Anna’s body and this request is another example of the ways in which the film’s men will attempt to manipulate women in order to get their ends away.
The film’s suggestion that, regardless of what she chooses, Anna will be forced to play by men’s rules is reinforced by the way in which the camera shoots Augarde. Almost from the get-go, the camera leers at Augarde’s teenaged body, moving from low-angle shots that show her arse to overhead shots that capture her masturbating with a pillow. In one scene where Anna’s boyfriend plays the guitar for her, the camera positively vibrates with pleasure as she lays on the bed exuding sexual energy. The fact that Anna is only supposed to be fourteen years old makes this a somewhat awkward cinematic experience, but the point is made: There is no escaping the male gaze.
In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), the germinal article that first coined the phrase ‘the male gaze’, Laura Mulvey argues that there is a long-standing link between the viewpoint adopted by the film and the viewpoint of the male characters and male audience members. Because of this association, female characters are treated not as makers of meaning but as the bearers of a meaning imposed upon them by the male characters, male directors and male audience members. Quillévéré’s ironic use of the male gaze reminds us that self-definition is not the same thing as emancipation when the terms of that process of self-definition are imposed by the status quo. Indeed, there is nothing preventing a film about a young woman growing-up and making her own choices that precludes the possibility of said film being profoundly sexist and exploitative. The near impossibility for women to achieve genuinely authentic self-definition in a society over which they possess little control is further explored through Quillévéré’s somewhat unusual approach to narrative exposition.
Love Like Poison frequently introduces effects before it mentions causes. For example, early in the film we are informed that Jean lives in the same house as Jeanne. We are also informed that Jean is Anna’s grandfather and that Jeanne has her own set of parents. This proves quite destabilising as it is not until much later in the film that Quillévéré lets us know that Jean is the father of Jeanne’s husband and that said husband has abandoned the marital home, selfishly leaving his estranged wife to look after his ailing father. Similarly, while the film presents Anna’s journey from naïve Catholicism to worldly Humanism as quite swift, it is not until quite late in the film that we learn that Anna attends an all-girl Catholic boarding school meaning that she has spent very little time around men. By introducing us to emotional fallout prior to the events that caused it, Quillévéré is suggesting that her characters are alienated from the true causes of their psychological states. Indeed, this disconnect between psychological cause and emotional effect is particularly evident in Jeanne’s Catholicism where her initial claims to be a lifelong and very serious Catholic are swept away by the revelation first that she was not too bothered about Catholicism when she was living with an atheist and second that her renewed interest in Catholicism might be due to a sexual interest in the parish priest.
Through an ironic affectation of the male gaze and by retroactively explaining both Anna and Jeanne’s decisions in terms of their relationships with men, Quillévéré is reminding us that many of the apparent freedoms enjoyed by women are actually illusory as the paths laid out for them are laid out by men. Indeed, though Anna’s path through the film is presented in an upbeat manner, the ending that sees her deciding to spend more time with her boyfriend is decidedly bitter sweet; Yes, Anna opted for Humanism after wrestling with the issue and yes, the path of Faith is obviously the wrong one for her, but were these really the only options available to her? Must all paths lead back to the cock? The film’s ambivalence about Anna’s decision communicates not only the difficulty of these questions but also the impossibility of resolving them with any degree of certainty. Love Like Poison suggests that there may very well be No Alternative to the male gaze.