5 min

Pool for love

Mistress of the deep end

SWAN DIVE. Léa Pool directs the amazing Lost And Delirious, a romantic coming-of-age film starring Piper Perabo and Jessica Paré. Credit: Paula Wilson

“I’m just a lucky person.”

This is Quebec filmmaker Léa Pool’s explanation for all the good things in her life: her chosen country, her widely acclaimed career as one of Canada’s master directors and her much adored young daughter.

She says it with an elegant shrug and a half-apologetic smile, as if too much boastfulness might somehow jinx her good fortune.

“Honestly, I’ve never pushed for anything consciously,” says Pool. “I’ve just been very, very open to the signals I’ve been sent.

“I came to Canada because my boyfriend at the time was moving here. I adopted my daughter after a friend told me that she had successfully adopted a child as a single woman – something I thought was not possible. I became a filmmaker because I happened to take an editing class when I was studying communications. See, my life is full of happy accidents.”

The latest happy accident is Pool’s seventh film and her first English-language feature, Lost And Delirious. Based on the novel The Wives Of Bath by author Susan Swan (Stupid Boys Are Good To Relax With) and adapted for the screen by playwright Judith Thompson (White Biting Dog), it boasts a stunning provenance of Canadian female talent.

The romantic coming-of-age story chronicles the friendship of three teenage girls at an all-female boarding school. It premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim and opens in Toronto on Fri, Jul 27.

Pool read Swan’s novel six years ago at the request of a producer who had optioned the book and was searching for a director. “I admired the novel, but I wasn’t ready yet to work in English and I was afraid of the ending. I had no idea of how to film it.”

Then came the great success of Pool’s 1999 film Emporte-Moi (Set Me Free), which picked up an armful of film fest awards from Berlin to New York, including being named the best Canadian film of 1999 by the Toronto Film Critics Association. Swan saw the film and felt that Pool would be the perfect fit; the filmmaker was approached again. This time Pool felt ready.

“I never set out to work in English, I never felt it was important or necessary. But this time it felt right. I could feel that it was a good time, after the success of Emporte-Moi. And I liked the script, which was important, because even if a book is a great book, a book is not a film.”

(The ending of film is different than the novel, but in the interest of not spoiling either, I won’t reveal how. Pool simply says that the film’s conclusion is a little less “sensational” than the book’s.)

Lost and Delirious stars Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense) as Mary, or Mouse as she prefers, who is dumped off at the chi-chi Perkins Girls’ College by her cold stepmother and her increasingly distant father. She winds up sharing a room with the beautiful and privileged Tory (Stardom’s Jessica Paré) and the free-spirited rebel Paulie (Piper Perabo of Coyote Ugly).

The three become close friends, bonding over their feelings of despair – Mouse’s grief for her dead mother, Tory’s frustration with her exacting parents and Paulie’s search for her birth mother.

After discovering them in a couple of late-night trysts, Mouse realizes that Tory and Paulie are secret lovers. She matter-of-factly accepts the situation and, for a time, the three settle into an adolescent idyll. Then Tory’s prissy younger sister catches Tory and Paulie in bed together. Torn between her conservative parents and her love for Paulie, Tory pulls away, denying the relationship. Unwilling to give her up, Paulie sets out a mission to win Tory back.

Beautifully shot and directed and aided by Thompson’s dead-on script, Pool exacts great performances from the three young actors, brilliantly capturing the emotional intensity of female adolescence. The delightful surprise is Perabo, who steals the film with her dynamic reckless energy and her tomboy swagger.

An uncompromising, passionate and doomed heroine in the spirit of Antigone, her Paulie has tragedy written all over her.

“It’s a very scary time of life,” says Pool. “I wanted to be very careful to have these girls speak from an adolescent point of view. I didn’t want to have this adult voice running the show and putting them in a kind of zoo for display.

“These three girls do not have the love they need, but they also can’t accept it when they are given it. That’s the problem with love, isn’t it? It’s either too much, or too little. I wanted the film to explore that through Paulie, who loses her great love, but also can’t accept the love of Mouse or the love of her teacher Miss Vaughn – who both want to help her. And that ultimately leads her to her tragedy. I want the audience right there with her. I want the audience to be able to go as far as Paulie goes.”

One place that Paulie won’t go is accepting the label “gay.” When Mouse attempts to comfort her by explaining that Tory probably isn’t a lesbian, Paulie says that she isn’t one, either. Pool says she felt the line is essential to understanding the character. “It would be wrong to see it as a denial. After all, Paulie announces her love for Tory very publicly.

“For her, their love is almost mythical, it’s greater than any label that could be given to it. Her feelings are so great that she cannot reduce them to a simple name or category. It’s Tory who denies their love and she is also torn apart by that betrayal, but in a very different way.”

With its English script, telegenic cast, big budget (by Canadian standards) and publicity push, Lost And Delirious is not only Pool’s most commercial film, but her most accessible. Her earlier works, while beautiful and haunting, are much more psychological and intellectual – and often more difficult.

Emporte-Moi marked a different, warmer and more emotional approach to filmmaking that Lost And Delirious builds upon.

The adoption of her daughter Giulia a few years ago accounts for some of that opening up, says Pool, as does her increasing confidence. “My films are so personal. I’ve gone from being a very shy, interior person interested in exploring internal pains to someone interested in exploring them more out in the open.

“When I began to work as a filmmaker, my need to express myself was so strong that I felt that I was choking on my words and feelings as they rushed out. As I’ve gotten older and matured, my ability to communicate is better. ”

Aside from some maternal gushing about Giulia, however, Pool is a little bit reticent about her own life, preferring to let her work communicate for her.

Pool, now 47, was raised in Switzerland. Her paternal Jewish grandfather was killed in the Holocaust and her mother struggled with depression. She came to Canada on a whim, in her twenties, following a boyfriend to Montreal, and she took up filmmaking, on another whim, in her early 30s.

She does acknowledge that the frequently recurring themes of her films – troubled childhoods, the search for mother love, same-sex desire, female empowerment – are autobiographical, in particular 1999’s Emporte-Moi (Set Me Free), a coming of age tale set in Quebec in the 1960s. It stars Karine Vanasse as 13-year-old Hanna, the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor father and a beaten-down, depressed Catholic mother. The mothers finds solace swooning over French actress Anna Karina and her sprightly portrayal of Nana in the Jean-Luc Godard film Vivre sa Vie, and in a romantic friendship with a young girl named Laura.

Pool adds that her arty 1986 lesbian-themed Anne Trister was also “an important film for me and, I think, a groundbreaking one for many women. It was very significant for its time.” In it, a grieving artist named Anne leaves Switzerland after the death of her father to move to Quebec with her boyfriend. In Montreal, she connects with an old acquaintance, a child psychologist named Alix, and the two women fall in love.

Pool says that she has no favourites among her work. “Of course there are moments and periods and achievements that stand out, but there are none that I think are better than the others. I hate the analogy, but my films are like my children. How can I love one more than another? I put my soul into all of them.”