French-Canadian director Léa Pool calls her latest movie a teenage-lesbian version of "Romeo and Juliet."
In "Lost and Delirious," which opens today in Los Angeles, the star-crossed lovers are Tory (Jessica Pare) and Paulie (Piper Perabo of "Coyote Ugly"). The girls are roommates and bedfellows at an exclusive girls' boarding school. But when classmates begin gossiping about the relationship, Tory abruptly ends the affair, concerned that her parents will reject her if they think she's a lesbian. To prove she's straight, she begins dating a young man. The unfolding tragedy is told from the point of view of Mouse (Mischa Barton), a new girl at school who shares a bedroom with Tory and Paulie.
Pool's first English-language film, a hit at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, is lyrical and moving, if overly earnest and overwrought. But all the angst is the point, the director insists. "Adolescent love is often melodramatic," says Pool, who, as a teen, ardently read poetry to lovers in the moonlight. "For teenagers, everything is about drama."
Yet the intense, soft-spoken director doesn't see her film just as a teen movie -- or as a lesbian movie, for that matter. "It's about any kind of bias or social pressure that destroys love," she says. "The doomed couple could be black and white, or Jewish and gentile."
Pool, 50, should know. During her childhood in Lausanne, Switzerland, her mother's Protestant parents bitterly fought with her father, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. Her parents never married, in part, because of their religious differences and, as a result, lived together out of wedlock.
The discord helped to push Pool's emotionally disturbed mother over the edge. "At one point, she attempted suicide," the director says. "I spent the first three and a half years of my life in an orphanage, because she couldn't take care of me. My childhood didn't get any easier. I always felt lost."
If Pool's protagonists are often tortured adolescents, it's because the director was once one herself. She said both her parents were too depressed to properly care for her. She believes her father felt guilty for surviving the Holocaust while his parents and sister perished. An unpublished poet, he spoke 10 languages but wasn't able to aptly express himself in any of them. While he could be warm and caring, he often took his anger and frustration out on Pool, striking her for the slightest infraction, she says. Because he was constantly unemployed, the rent on the family's modest flat was perpetually overdue.
Pool's mother, meanwhile, slaved away as a clothing designer and was always too exhausted to pay much attention to Pool or Pool's older brother. "She was just so absent, and I longed for her," Pool says. She found solace by escaping to the movies, her childhood obsession.
By the time she was in her early 20's, she had decided to become a filmmaker -- but was daunted by her father's artistic failure. "It made me afraid to try to write," she recalls. "But then again, I also wanted to repair something, to accomplish what he couldn't."
After she buried her father in Tel Aviv in 1975, Pool hoped to study filmmaking in Israel and to make aliyah. She had developed close ties with her Israeli cousins and felt more at home in the Jewish State than in Switzerland, where she had encountered anti-Semitism. Pool even attended a Jerusalem ulpan for three months to learn Hebrew. Ultimately, she didn't make aliyah because she did not qualify as Jewish under Israel's Law of Return. "It was sad for me to learn that I did not belong there, either," she says.
Instead, she relocated to Montreal and began turning out a series of acclaimed, semiautobiographical films. In "Anne Trister" (1986), an obsessive Swiss Jewish artist buries her father in Israel, confronts her cold mother, says goodbye to her boyfriend, moves to Quebec and falls in love with an older woman -- just as Pool did in 1975.
"Set Me Free" (1999), about a film-obsessed teen in a dysfunctional family, "is essentially my life from age 12 to 18," Pool says. Adopting a baby girl from China in 1995 gave the director the courage to explore her painful childhood on film. "To become a mother, I needed to make peace with that part of my life," she explains. "It was a kind of therapy."
Pool didn't write "Lost and Delirious" (Judith Thompson's screenplay is based on Susan Swan's novel, "The Wives of Bath"), but she closely identifies with the three protagonists. Each is dealing with the emotional fallout caused by the absence of a mother, a theme that emerges often in Pool's movies. "A lot of my work deals with how you build your identity if your mother is unavailable to you," she says. "The way I did it was through film."