Puppy Love: San Sebastian Review
San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors)
Thought-provoking debut from a Belgian newcomer about a young woman's miserable sexual awakening.
Girls just want to have fun in Puppy Love, but what sadly joyless fun it is. Delphine Lehericey's debut is a drama about the awakening sexuality of a teenage girl that initially looks as refreshingly uninhibited as the heroine's wild-child mentor, but which ends up as a sternly conservative reminder that there’s always a price to pay for free love.
Shot through with an apparent documentary candidness that disguises its lack of balance, the black-and-white terms in which Puppy Love sets out its arguments are likely to put the teenage audience it's mainly addressing off men, let alone having sex with them, for the rest of their lives. Its subject matter is perfect for audiences who perk up when they get a sniff of controversy, so that festivals could well be yapping at Puppy's heels.
Timid misfit Diane (Solene Rigot, whose expression, crucially for the film, combines innocence with knowingness), fourteen, lives in the sticks with her younger brother, responsible for some lovely moments of humor, and single father Christian (Swiss star Vincent Perez), who is doing his not very good best to raise them. When a problem arises, such as his discovering Diane watching hard core porn, Christian, far from sitting down for the required chat, runs his hand through his neatly ruffled hair and looks disarmingly puzzled.
When Julia (Audrey Bastien) moves into the apartment opposite and flashes her underwear at Diane, then a whole new world of possibility opens up. On their first night out together, Diane's new friend from hell insists that Diane does exactly as she says, which Diane indeed does as through the film Julia offers herself to one man after another.
By her own admission, Julia, whose reasons for wanting to have sex all the time are never given, is prepared to sleep with any man she meets as long as he doesn't smell bad. Which is her choice; it may be somehow explained by the fact that her father is violent to her. But Julia's reasons for dragging the hapless Diane along as the sexual stakes become increasingly risky -- which may be the really interesting story -- are never tackled.
One scene, exemplary in striking the tone of awkwardness which dominates the film, has Diane asking Christian whether he finds her attractive and would sleep with her. Here and elsewhere Rigot carries her dramatic burden well, her face at all times a precise register of the all-consuming doubts and insecurities that go with the process of growing up.
There is no doubting Lehericey's good intentions - she wants to show what it's like for girls whose first involvement with sex has come via Internet pornography. But nuance and indeed credibility are badly lacking in Puppy Love. Diane has found herself in a dark, but hopefully made-up world in which all men under the age of about forty are sexual predators who have no qualms about sleeping with underage girls, and in which all parents, in one way or another, are either useless or, particularly in the film's risible later stages, active forces for harm.
Sex with strangers, the viewer learns, may not actually be the path to a young woman's self fulfillment. But more positive alternatives, such as say the possibility of love – even between Diane and her endlessly mysterious friend fatale Julia - are never addressed, and as the camera pulls back on Diane looking defiantly back across a busy road on the way to freeing herself from the dangers of both her father and her friend, she actually looks even more hopelessly lost and damaged than she ever has before.
Visually, things are never more explicit than one full frontal shot. Characters who are presumed to be English speakers have strangely un-English accents.
Production: Entre Chien et Loup, Liaison Cinématographique, Box Productions, Juliette Films
Cast: Solene Rigot, Audrey Bastien, Vincent Perez, Thomas Coumans
Director: Delphine Lehericey
Screenwriters: Lehericey, Martin Coiffier
Producers: Sebastien Delloye, David Grumbach
Director of photography: Sebastien Godefroy
Costume designer: Uli Simon
Editor: Ewin Ryckaert
No rating, 85 minutes