Editor’s Note: Puppy Love premieres at the San Sebastian film festival today, September 22nd.
“We don’t have to do it straight away” is the awkward offering of the young Antoine, into whose bed Diane, the unquenchably curious fourteen year-old at the heart of Puppy Love, has gamely leapt. It makes for a fine contrast to the sort of supremely confident projections of his classmates, who at one point in the film march into the girls’ dressing room wearing nothing but towels as though expecting the young women to fall at their feet. The distinctions between public and private sexuality are this movie’s main concern, explored by way of Diane’s own evolution from the mutually inexperienced after-school activity that opens her story to the vastly different circumstances that, eighty minutes of aptly amusing experimentation later, close it.
Puppy Love is a movie that the more conservative might label explicit or exploitative, where really it’s nought but refreshingly open.
A frank and honest embrace of the realities of childhood sexuality, Puppy Love is a movie that the more conservative might label explicit or exploitative, where really it’s nought but refreshingly open. Diane is a delight of a character, a lively but reserved kid whose slow transformation into a young woman comfortable within the confines of her own body provides the heart and humour on which the film thrives. Solène Rigot’s is a sublime performance: here fragile, there funny, she ably expresses those universal awkward absurdities that accompany any sexual self-exploration without ever undermining the character’s dramatic reality. Take an early scene where her father, the sole parent to her and her younger brother, walks in to find her poring over pornography with the same studiousness she might be expected to afford a textbook; glaring at him as if to ask if he’d rather explain the process himself, she nails the cross-section of comedy and curiosity the character demands.
Yet, perhaps appropriately, Puppy Love is a film that feels just as unsure of what it’s getting itself into as does its protagonist. A burgeoning friendship with new neighbour Julia opens both her and the film up to a wealth of sexual experiences, be they shy kisses or ménages à trios, but that freedom of expression and exploration is less liberating that it is restrictive, confining the movie to a cyclical pattern of sequences that find Diane and Julia beneath the sheets with an assortment of boys both young and old. It becomes, if not exploitative, certainly understandably open to criticism as such: there is no smutty explicitness here, yet nor is there quite the same sense of discovery and depth as came before, far fewer of the funny observances.
Maybe it’s fitting that the film should seem so unsteady in its direction, pegged as it is to the perspective of a young woman first dipping her toes in the sea of sexual expression.
What there is, in lieu of a particularly probing coming-to-terms with this character and her change, is a certain sexual tension between her and Julia that provides a glimpse at a form of female sexuality so rarely allowed to play out on screen. It’s both a good thing and a bad that it manages to call to mind Lisa Aschan’s She Monkeys: good for the parallels between that great movie and this; bad for the growing differences that set them apart. Aschan’s is a film that finds precisely the sort of dimorphic darkness for which Puppy Love evidently strives; the latter, for all its successes, tends toward the physical over the psychological—albeit never to its exclusion—as its plot progresses.
Maybe it’s fitting that the film should seem so unsteady in its direction, pegged as it is to the perspective of a young woman first dipping her toes in the sea of sexual expression. As Donny Osmond once famously sang: “Oh I guess they’ll never know / How a young heart really feels”. They can’t; we can’t: each young heart is unique, driven by its own particular affections and obsessions. Like that song with which it shares its name, Puppy Love is an ode to those affectations, fully appreciable only to those who bear them. If perhaps one that slightly loses sight along the way, it’s a fine effort to discover this young character striving to discover herself.
[notification type=”star”]65/100 ~ OKAY. Like the song with which it shares its name, Puppy Love is an ode to affectations appreciable only to those who bear them.[/notification]