Céline Sciamma’s debut feature is, on the surface, as delicate as its English title. But the original French more accurately translates to Birth of the Octopuses, evoking a kind of flailing, visceral messiness, and that quality is here too. The two titles together seem to get at a recurring quality of Sciamma’s films: the violent, passionate, unruly impulses of womanhood and personhood under the placid surface of femininity (or at least what is mistaken for femininity, in the cases of her DFAB protagonists whose true sense of gender is more elusive). For her early work to prefigure all that is impressive, speaking of a remarkably coherent artistic vision.
And also, you know, Water Lilies is good. It’s a little familiar in shape–it has a kind of standard-issue festival film looseness to it, with a careful and literary sense of ambiguity–and less revelatory than later Sciamma works like Girlhood and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But it has a prickly tenderness that suits its adolescent subjects, who are both extraordinarily vulnerable and incredibly capable of inflicting harm; a profound sense of the beauty and weirdness of longing and attraction; and some spectacular performances, especially, and unsurprisingly, from Adéle Haenel.
The film revolves around the inner worlds and the romantic and sexual desires of three teenage girls, all of whom–like most of us–are slightly estranged from whatever they imagine is universal. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is the watchful center, with her enormous dark eyes taking in everything without fully understanding it; she falls swiftly into headlong infatuation with elegant synchronized swimmer Floriane (Haenel). Floriane’s coolly charismatic, self-possessed aura is one of experience, but it’s a front: she’s been too busy dealing with what other people want of her to find out what she actually wants herself. And the pressures of image have warped her, stealing away her sense of self and replacing it with the panicked need to maintain the lie. Orbiting around the growing intimacy between Marie and Floriane is the more awkward–and more firmly heterosexual–Anne (Louise Blanchére), Marie’s best friend. After Floriane’s boyfriend, François (Warren Jacquín), accidentally walks in on Anne in the changing room at the pool, Anne becomes obsessed with him. She wants him, but the most he’s willing to do is take advantage of her obvious availability.
Of all of them, Floriane is the one who is most obviously a “character,” someone constructed to be compelling, and Sciamma makes that painfully true rather than artificial. Of course Floriane is a kind of intoxicating fantasy, designed to appeal, designed to make you want to be the one who sees the real her. That’s how she’s had to become in order to live on anything close to her own terms. She has to manage, constantly, being wanted, not only by her peers but by adult men like her swim coach. Her beauty–her inability to be invisible–has turned her into everyone’s property. In the end, her inaccessibility is a kind of victory for her, even as it either rankles or devastates her various hangers-on.
Water Lilies is sharply observed, with an excruciatingly apt sense of what it’s like to be an adolescent, with everything heightened and heady. It captures a sense of disappointment and deflation that probably resonates more with most teenage experiences of love than any number of high school happy endings. It’s both enjoyable in its own right and a wonderful sign of Sciamma’s future projects.
Water Lilies is available on the Criterion Channel.