Review of Water Lilies, a new French film brimming with Sapphic adolescent desire.
Written and Directed by Celine Sciamma
Few feelings can compare to the fever, longing and gut-wrenching oblivion of that first adolescent infatuation. Writer and director Céline Sciamma captures the voodoo essence of unrequited love with uncanny precision in Water Lilies, her exquisite feature debut. Set in the suburbs of Paris, Water Lilies portrays the romantic awakenings of three young synchronized swimmers: Floriane (Adèle Haenel), the beautiful and intoxicating team captain; Marie (Pauline Acquart), the lanky, introverted novice who falls under Floriane’s spell; and Anne (Louise Blanchère), Marie’s chubby, wisecracking companion, who gets pushed aside as Marie follows Floriane down desire’s sinuous, shadowy path.
Marie is the protagonist, Floriane her formidable muse. Says Sciamma, “Through Marie, I wanted to talk about the moment when inescapable desire is born….we accompany her seduction, understanding and suffering…For me, homosexuality is not a subject, it’s a journey.”
Sciamma espouses a spellbinding economy of dialogue, making each occasional utterance a mini-event in itself. What might otherwise be meaningless banter gets imbued with great pitch and moment, allowing us fascinating and sometimes painful glimpses into the hearts and minds of the three 15-year-old girls.
Synchronized swimming provides a powerful metaphor for the challenge of girlhood today. According to Sciamma, “It’s a sport that demands a lot of effort that has to be hidden. The girls have to make it look easy, and smiling is compulsory…Synchronized swimmers are little soldiers made up like dolls. They have to seduce and fight.”
The film is uniquely female in perspective; the girls are the main event, and boys appear only as adjunct players in their budding social landscape. Furthermore, there are no adults in the film; a lascivious swimming coach appears in the locker room for a couple of seconds, but he exists merely as a signifier of the adult, male lust that exerts itself on the girls’ still-forming notions of their roles in society.
A stunning prismatic effect comes into play as Floriane bewitches lovelorn Marie, while the brutally rebuffed Anne chases Floriane’s boyfriend. Although this synopsis may conjure images of Cruel Intentions or Wild Things, Water Lilies is something else entirely. It is neither lowbrow nor soapy nor erotically contrived. Rather, the heartbreak of Lolita and the intrigue of American Beauty merge with tenderness and understanding in this breathtakingly bittersweet film.
Water Lilies opens at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema Theater on April 4.