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Water Lilies
cast: Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachère, and Adele Haenel

director: Céline Sciamma

85 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Contender DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Oh what a difference some context makes, since I first saw this film it was at the 22nd London lesbian and gay film festival. Having heard good things about Water Lilies (aka: Naissance des pieuvres), I was slightly disappointed to discover a film that was very much in thrall to the formulaic nature of many gay films. But upon seeing the film for a second time, I realised that I had been completely wrong footed by a film that is not only timeless but also universal in its observations.

Marie (Pauline Acquart) attends a synchronised swimming meet in order to support her slightly chubby and childish friend Anne (Louise Blachère). While watching the competition, Marie's sexuality awakens and latches onto the glamorous if icy captain of the synchronised swimming team Floriane (Adele Haenel). Marie then tries to ingratiate herself with Floriane; acting as her fan, her assistant and her confidante, allowing the two girls to grow closer, and Floriane welcomes this friendship because she is hated by the other girls because of the rumours that she has already started sleeping with boys ("passed to the other side").

However, despite playing up to those rumours and flirting with loads of different boys, Floriane cannot quite bring herself to take that final step and so she approaches Marie to be her first sexual partner. Marie, sensing the problems that would come with such an event, turns her down flat and then lashes out at her friend Anne who is so desperate to have sex with a boy that she has taken to burying her bra in the garden of the object of her desire. In one night, Marie and Floriane have sex (or rather Marie gets Floriane off), and Anne is called upon by a boy who fucks her on a sofa but refuses to kiss her. Realising the terrible errors they have made, Anne and Marie make up and attend a party where the cynicism of their respective lovers is made abundantly clear.

When I first saw this film, I interpreted it as a gay film. By this I mean that I viewed Anne very much as a secondary character whose childishness and heterosexuality served only to underline the world that Marie was leaving. When seen from this angle (an angle we are encouraged to use by the film's English title, poster and DVD cover), Water Lilies is a weak film that retreads much the same ground trod by pretty much every gay film ever made. Yes it is nicely shot, yes it deals with lesbians rather than gays but ultimately it's the same old story of sexual identity struggling to emerge. However, this is not the only way to see the film.

Another interpretation of the film is that it is not about Marie and Floriane but about Marie, Floriane and Anne and the blossoming of all of their sexual identities; one lesbian, two straight. Indeed, this is an interpretation that has a resonance with the original French title as naissance des pieuvres means 'the birth of squids', and squids have three hearts.

When seen from this perspective, the film opens up into a work of considerable intelligence. It is very much reminiscent of Lucile Hadzihalilovic's spectacular Innocence (2004), a fable about a girls' finishing school that is symbolic of a girl's gradual movement from being a child to being a sexually mature woman. Much like Innocence, Water Lilies has moments where, as a male viewer, I felt as though I was intruding. For example, scenes of the changing rooms, of girls just hanging out together and extended shots of what goes on beneath the surface of the water in synchronised swimming are all things that, as a male, I am not really allowed to look at and that I have never seen.

No matter how many women you sleep with and how many relationships you have, there are always parts of a woman's sexual history that are off-limits to you and so watching films like Water Lilies or Innocence tend to make men feel slightly uncomfortable and this pushes them to harrumph about underage sexuality despite the fact that it is impossible to think of a film dealing with male adolescence that does not touch on their endless wanking and lusting after girls. Films and series like Sex And The City try to redress the balance but once a woman enters adulthood and starts having relationships, the spell is broken and men are allowed access to that sexuality and become familiar with it. This is why films like Innocence and Water Lilies seem far more intrusive and uncomfortable to watch than four botoxed shoe fetishists discussing vibrators.

The intimacy of the film is highlighted by a couple of quite nice touches. For example, the film is shot in the newly built town of Cergy-Pontoise. Dating back only to the 1960s and being only 30 km from Paris, Cergy has a strangely lifeless feel to it. The action takes place in suburban houses and swimming pools; there are no schools, no shopping centres, no libraries and no parents. Indeed, the girls have the same kind of freedom as the kids in Richard Linklater's Dazed And Confused; we never see the parents because they are not in the least bit relevant to the story. Similarly, the boys in the film are all largely interchangeable and are never anything more than boys. Again, who the boys are is not as relevant as how the girls react to these boys. The focus is upon them, the boys are merely there as set dressing for their emotional journeys. The lack of any sense of history from the surroundings along with the lack of real adults and things such as trendy clothes, mobile phones, MP3 players or the internet give the film a strangely post-apocalyptic feel as though there is simply nothing in the world other than these three girls who are scrutinised to the point where the film almost feels clinical.

Writer and director Céline Sciamma clearly planned this film meticulously and intelligently, making every shot feel loaded with meaning right down to the choice of colour palates. This can make the film seem over-intellectualised, especially as it is supposed to be a coming of age drama about first love. Such a topic might naturally lead to the actresses being given some space for emotional projection but weirdly, Sciamma decides to keep all of her characters on a short emotional lead; implying rather than showing the emotional turmoil she subjects them to.

Despite such intense authorial control, Sciamma elicits three great performances from her lead actresses. Acquart and Haenel's characters are mirror images of each other separated by puberty and so they both pout and glare and keep themselves to themselves. Meanwhile Blachere's alternation between childish abandon and intense self-awareness perfectly captures the subtleties of that stage of life. The quality of the performances suggest that, while Sciamma wants us to engage intellectually rather than emotionally with the subject matter, she is more than capable of getting great performances out of any actors that happen to work with her.

Indeed, despite being the work of a first time director, Water Lilies is a superbly intelligent and beautifully made film that is fully deserving of the buzz that it has generated. My only real regret is that it has been marketed primarily as a gay film. This is an unfortunate decision artistically as a queer reading of the film results in the sidelining of characters and issues that deserve their place in the foreground. Water Lilies is not a film about a lesbian, it is a film about female sexuality explored through the lives of three different characters one of whom is currently attracted to women. This is a film for all women, and it is a thing of true craft and beauty.
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