The first of Céline Sciamma’s trilogy about teenage girls is in some ways the most hard-hitting, primarily because it is the least contextualised in terms of family and setting. All three films deal with an isolated teenage girl who is in some ways attracted into a ‘community’ or a set of relationships. In the second of the trilogy, Tomboy (2011), questions of gender and identity are approached with more circumspection and the ‘issue’ is set partly in a family context. In the third film, Girlhood, the sociology of the lead character’s situation is laid out in more detail. (A review of Girlhood will arrive soon.)
The ‘water lilies’ of the title are the teams of young female synchronised swimmers based in a pool in Ile de France (the same outer suburbs, where the director grew up, that appear in Tomboy). The central character is Marie (Pauline Acquart) a skinny young girl who is attractive but appears younger than her close friend Anne (Louise Blachère). Anne, one of the swimmers, is chasing boys but Marie is fascinated by the girls in the pool and in particular the tall and glamorous captain of the senior team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Floriane seems to revel in her reputation as a ‘slag’ (or ‘slut’ – not sure about the accuracy of the subtitles, the terms have slightly different meanings in British English)) and the other girls assume that she is regularly sleeping with the local boys. But is she? Marie seems quite prepared to join the team in order to find out. Does she know that this may offend Anne? Both Anne and Floriane are chasing the same boy.
Water Lilies is a film about hormones and teenage angst. The (‘mature’) female audience members I watched it with were reminded of the agonies of teenage life but didn’t really take to the film. For my part, as a mystified middle-aged male, I found the film fascinating in terms of the single-mindedness and bravery of Marie in seeking what she wanted. I think Céline Sciamma is a major talent and I’m trying to think of an American or British film that comes anywhere near the directness and acute observation of this trilogy. I suppose Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (US 2003) gets somewhere near but most of the leading British female directors (Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard) tend to focus as much on boys as girls and I can’t immediately think of films that focus on teenage girls en masse in quite the same way. Reading through IMDB comments on the film, Sofia Coppola’s name comes up but arguably the strongest films presenting younger teenage girls are Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, Sweden 1998) and We Are the Best! (Sweden 2013) by Lukas Moodysson (helped on the latter by his partner’s script).
Unlike in Tomboy there are virtually no parents seen in Water Lilies and the three girls seem to come and go as they please (I assume it is the summer holiday season). The lack of parents/family (no awkward siblings) is perhaps simply part of the minimalism of the film. There are few of the other trappings of the youth picture (no pop songs, clashes with ‘authority’, cultural differences expressed through food/drink/teen slang etc.). In this interview Céline Sciamma explains that the focus on just the girls was deliberate – forcing the viewer to identify with 15 year-old girls and how they see the world. During the promotional period for the film at festivals Sciamma outed herself and this film could be categorised as part of lesbian cinema. However, it seemed to me that the questions of gender identity it raises are just as mixed as they are in Tomboy. The focus on long sequences in the pool and in the showers offer a mise en scène that is clammy, overheated and loaded with metaphors for sexual congress (something shared with a number of other ‘pool-based’ films, including Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End). It would be interesting to know how many teachers have thought about using this film with 15 year-old students to stimulate discussion around gender identity. I suspect that many might be worried by the direct approach. For me there is nothing prurient about this film (though I guess going by the dictionary definition of the word it would be possible to argue that there is). What would be useful to discuss is the difference between those films that use the girls’ changing room as the site of excitement for the male gaze (the Porky’s films from the 1980s and perhaps De Palma’s Carrie) and this film (and a film featuring boys in a similar situation like if . . . .) which see the changing room and the showers as a site for personal discoveries about sexual identity. The image of Marie above reminds me of Sister Ruth spying on Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (UK 1947).
Reading comments on the film, I’m taken by the number of young people who enjoy the film and take it for what it is. Some of them suggest that they like the music. I didn’t notice it so that probably proves that it is appropriate for a youth picture.
The trailer for the film is useful in conveying the setting but distorts the narrative by focusing solely on one relationship. The sequences featuring the third character Anne are important too: