A debut effort by director Celine Sciamma, Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres) is an impressive little film about the hell that is the slow and confused process of sexual discovery.
Set against the background of a synchronized swimming program for schoolchildren, the film opens to scenes of writhing bodies and the bright, grease painted and utterly artificial smiles that seem to be the peculiar motif of this bizarre sport.
Beneath the paint and the smiles are the girls who are about to become women, inhabiting a locker-room world as harsh as, and certainly more poisonous than, the male equivalent. This is not a French version of Mean Girls, and Pauline Acquart (as Marie) is vastly more interesting to watch than Lindsay Lohan, as she struggles to come to terms with a crush on synchronized swim team captain Floriane and her friendship with the sexually precocious but tubby Anne.
Marie, who at 15 still inhabits the body of a child, is entranced by the physicality of Floriane, who already has the body of a woman, and is learning to manipulate the weapons of her sexuality. Floriane knows the power of her body over both men and women and uses it mercilessly to get what she wants, developing a cruel hold over Marie that forms the core of the picture. Marie, thoughtful and sensitive, is looking for love, and makes herself a willing victim.
Anne, eager for sexual experience, finds herself betrayed by her own lusts and looks for solace in her friendship with Marie. They are nibbling at the edges of adult sexual relationships and every tentative step requires a merciless determination that is likely to wound both themselves and their closest friends. And in the pool, the girls dance, their perfectly poised bodies held up by the violent agitation of their limbs beneath the surface.
Marie, Floriane and Anne seem to inhabit a world without adults and are left to sort out their own problems in the insulated environment of the locker room and the occasional house party. But it is the very narrowness of this focus that provides the appeal of Sciamma’s film, as it allows many small and telling details of the emotional maelstrom that is adolescent sexuality to be shown, unobstructed by the distractions of a wider social milieu.
There is a strong lesbian undercurrent in Water Lilies, but the film manages to reach beyond this narrow category and is a contemplative exploration of adolescence, cramming many thoughtful observations into its 85 minutes. The story does not arrive at any particular conclusions, but as with sexual discovery, it is the process that is most interesting.
DIRECTED BY: CELINE SCIAMMA
STARRING: PAULINE ACQUART (MARIE), LOUISE BLACHERE (ANNE), ADELE HAENEL (FLORIANE)
RUNNING TIME: 85 MINUTES
LANGUAGE: IN FRENCH WITH CHINESE SUBTITLES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
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