This is an awkwardly elegant film about the tribulations of being a 15-year-old girl. Set in the already somewhat alien world of synchronised swimming, further removed by being of French origin, made perhaps more remote to half its audience by being about the transition to womanhood, this is nonetheless an affecting portrait of adolescence.
The original title is Naissance Des Pieuvres, which literally translates as “birth of octopuses”. The biological reference extends past the similarities between synchronised swimmers and flailing tentacles. This is purely about the young; parents are absent, unseen. (Though, one assumes, not as a result of the father’s death after conception and the mother’s shortly before hatching.)
However, Water Lilies isn’t bad as anglicised titles go. Monet’s hundreds of paintings share with the film a sense of observant obsession, impressionist moments. This is focused filmmaking, not so much elegiac as lyric.
The observer here is Marie (Pauline Acquart), a slight, boyish creature, possessed of an enthralling intensity. The focus of her interest is Floriane (Adele Haenel), a beautiful young woman, star of the synchronised swimming squad, struggling to balance her life with her reputation. Left behind by Marie’s interest is Anne (Louise Blachère), gawky and young, more cygnet than swan. Complicating the situation further is Floriane’s beau François (Warren Jacquin), star of the water polo team and lusted after by Anne.
This is a difficult film to discuss, in places even more difficult to watch. It’s an accurate portrait of the complexities of adolescence, the see-saw of emotions, the wild swings from child to adult and back. While rated as a 15 it raises some questions about sexuality that some will find uncomfortable, and when seen from outside it is in places as hard to understand as adolescence itself. That’s not necessarily a problem. As with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, it hypnotises, seduces the audience, draws us into its view of the world.
A writing and directing debut for Céline Sciamma, this marks her as a talent to watch. Unflinching in its portrayal of complex psychosexual territory, it immediately calls to mind the work of Michael Haneke. This is a beautiful film, never less than convincing. Technically it is a masterwork, visually splendid with excellent sound work. The underwater sequences are handled with a particular subtlety as are those in nightclubs and bedrooms.
Sciamma may be new to filmmaking, but so too are most of her cast. Acquart is stunning, brilliant in her interactions with Haenel as their relationship steers a tricky course through discomfiting territory. Blachère is excellent too, charting a path from Happy Meals to boy-chasing with diversions through dog-walking and shoplifting.
No matter how maturely, how sensitively or accurately it’s handled, there are some for whom anything involving adolescent sexuality is going to be uncomfortable, if not outrageous. It’s hard not to look for parallels with Larry Clark’s Kids, but the biggest difference is that here not only is the presentation positive, but it’s female centric – the few men in the film hardly speak.
The score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier (aka Para One) is apt, weirdly reminiscent of Vangelis and Eurotechno but still somehow working. It’s vaguely unsettling in its artificiality, a strange blend that’s not quite one thing or another. This general state of “between” runs through Water Lilies, compounded by its status as a subtitled international release.
Water Lilies is sophisticated, literary, and totally deserving of the awards attention it has received. Like synchronised swimming it is technically demanding, almost exclusively female, and worth watching for the effort and turmoil below the surface.