Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres)

France (2007) Dir. Céline Sciamma

The lives of three teenage girls intertwine one summer at the local swimming pool amidst a synchronised swimming contest, complicated by interpersonal conflicts that arise resulting in an unconventional love triangle. Marie (Pauline Acquart) becomes infatuated with swimmer Floriane (Adèle Haenel) at a contest while there to support her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère). At a party Anne makes a beeline for a boy named François (Warren Jacquin) she fancies but he avoids her because of her chubby size and plain looks. François fancies Floriane but only because of her loose reputation, upsetting Anne when she sees them kissing. Desperate to get close to Floriane, Marie agrees to be Floriane’s alibi for when she meets François but the pair soon forms a relationship of their own, leaving Anne out in the cold.

This short (80 minutes) but multi-layered coming-of-age story is the debut from the director of the gender confronting drama Tomboy, Céline Sciamma, who seems to enjoy tackling the issue of sexuality and the confusions felt by some. While Tomboy is the more innocent of the two, Water Lilies – pardon the pun – dives right in with the Sapphic suggestions from the onset, only to throw the audience off by veering off down unexpected paths.

The three girls are all different – physically and in personality – yet they come together through the joint apprehensions of their burgeoning sexual awakenings. Marie is skinny and serious, with the gamine boyish figure and young looks; Anne is chubby, plain and outgoing, often immature while Floriane is the pretty one with the developed body and the reputation of someone who knows how to use it. Whether she is aware that Marie fancies her or not isn’t clearly defined, but Floriane is keen to exploit her willingness to be by her side. But Floriane’s haughty attitude doesn’t sit well with Marie who refuses to be used with such little regard, but ever the succubus, Floriane can work her charms on both sexes it seems – bringing with this a surprise revelation that changes the complexity of the relationship.

The irony of the story is not how Marie is the one caught on the middle of a potential love triangle but how this role somehow goes to Anne. Gleefully enjoying frivolous girly day outs with Marie, Anne is unaware that her best friend is not only working with the enemy but also in love with her. Meanwhile Anne is doing her best to win François over with her efforts rebounding on her as he ends up with Floriane. It’s a unique situation which plays out in a far simpler manner than it reads, keeping the viewer guessing as much as Floriane does poor Marie.

Elsewhere we are privy to an inside look at the world of competitive teen synchronised swimming, which is as demanding an endeavour as any sport. While Sciamma avoids sexualising the sport itself, having blossoming painted up female teens in tight swimsuits is an easy set up around which to base an angsty teenage drama. One scene teases this however – a trainer lining every girl up for inspection, admonishing one who “didn’t have the time”; the time for what is revealed when she is handed a disposable razor! We are also treated to a few displays to demonstrate the hard work that goes into learning the routines and the timing involved. One can assume that professionals were used for these scenes but the actresses had to be seen to be involved so kudos to them for their commitment to their roles.

Sciamma is clearly not one to dictate empathy for her characters, allowing the audience to make their own minds up. There is no wishy washy soundtrack to accentuate the moods, no floods of tears or bursts of over exaggerated melodrama, just a simple, naturalistic albeit slightly esoteric tale of three teenage girls getting to grips with their emotions. The beauty of the main characterisations is that all three girls are in a grey area through their actions – although Floriane is unquestionably closest to the antagonist role – dividing opinion on where the sympathies should lie. Marie’s creepy obsession with Floriane counteracts her lapdog role, while Anne’s feckless daydreaming over François ruins her loyalty to Marie; and Floriane may be a conniving little madam but she too is just a young woman unsure of which direction her hormones are taking her.

Despite the film’s low key credentials, every thing is very well shot and then rookie Sciamma shows a nascent promise for shot composition and usage of visual subtleties. The pace is deliberate but never too slow, and dialogue is often sparse, allowing simple looks and body language to ably convey what words can’t – a key intimate scene between Floriane and Marie exemplifies this as does the poetic and deeply ambiguous final shot. The young cast are all superb in their respective roles with Pauline Acquart and Louise Blachère both making their debuts here, the latter delivering a superbly understated essaying of the conflicted Marie. However it is the glamorous Adèle Haenel as Floriane who is the nominal centrepiece and it is of little surprise she has prospered the most in her career thus far.

Water Lilies might be seen as one of many forerunners to current hit Blue Is The Warmest Colour but to assume so is to do this intelligent and affecting film a disservice. Possessing a poise and boldness which only a female director can bring, this is an assured and debut and with Tomboy also proving what Sciamma brings to the table, let’s hope it’s not another four years before her next film arrives.

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