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:
Chambers Dictionary defines ‘circumstance’ as the ‘logical surroundings of an action’. For me, this film is itself a circumstance more than it is a film. My first thought was that it was an ‘event’ – there is so much surrounding it that is non-diegetic – outside the world of the film’s narrative. Let me explain. This is a film ostensibly about a social issue in Iran, namely the social and cultural restraints that govern the public behaviour of young women in the Islamic Republic. But, as is the case with several other significant Iranian films, Circumstance was made outside Iran (in Beirut) by an exilic/diasporic cast and writer-director using French and American funding. I’m using exilic here to refer to Iranians who have left Iran because of real or anticipated persecution and diasporic to refer to less contentious economic migrants, some from much earlier periods.
The story focuses on a wealthy Tehran family. I never found out what the father did, but he went to university in California and he loves classical music. The mother is a medical practitioner. The main focus is their 16 year-old daughter Atafeh who has developed a passionate relationship with a girl at school, Shireen. Shireen is much less wealthy and she lives with her aunt and uncle – her parents having been executed by the regime as academics with the wrong politics. She spends as much time with Atafeh as possible, visiting her and going on her family trips. The classic inciting agent in the narrative is Atafeh’s older brother Mehran who returns from rehab – required because of his drug problem. Mehran’s behaviour is ‘strange’ according to his father. He appears to have become religious in what has up to now been a secular family.
At points in the first part of the film I wondered if this was the same world explored in Asghar Farhadi’s films or those of Jafar Panahi (especially given Panahi’s own spacious apartment as revealed in This Is Not a Film). But it’s soon quite clear that this is a very different fictional world. I don’t speak Farsi so I couldn’t judge how the cast handled the dialogue, but a quick glance at the IMDb comments from Iranians suggests that most of the leads, apart from the actress who plays the mother, had major problems speaking the language. What I could spot, however, were the many holes in the plot. Farhadi’s films are very carefully scripted with intricate plot developments, but in Circumstance I literally ‘lost the plot’ at certain points as I simply couldn’t understand why things were happening. Some of the actions lacked credibility for me. (The same comments come from Iranians.)
At the heart of the film is the affair between the two young women. This is presented partly through fantasy sequences in which the pair imagine a ‘free’ world in Dubai where one will become a nightclub singer managed by the other. There are also ‘real’ sequences provocatively presented with manicured hands and painted lips caressing flesh – but little overt sexual display. At other times the girls visit daytime and nighttime underground clubs. The ultimate daring activity is to take part in dubbing foreign language import/black market DVDs, specifically Milk and Sex and the City. This underground alternative popular culture for the young in Iran is represented (in an earlier time period) in Persepolis. Although I haven’t seen it, I take it also to be present in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats. But Ghobadi and Marjane Satrapi were writing films about what they experienced living in Iran. Maryam Keshavarz, the young Iranian-American writer-director of Circumstance, says that she based her script on her experiences on holiday in Iran and talking to her relatives. I felt at times as if the film was an American perspective on Iranian culture. The major issue is the behaviour of the brother, Mehran. I couldn’t work why he did what he did, how he did it and why nobody stood up to him. I don’t want to spoil the narrative outcome, but at the end of the film I remained puzzled.
On the positive side, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh and the film certainly has a vitality about it. I thought that the story about the two young women was going somewhere before the narrative veered off course. I’m glad I watched it but I fear its status will be more of an ‘event’ at the centre of a controversy rather than as a film.
Circumstance is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. The screening I attended was part of the POUT Film Festival touring LGBT films around the country. It goes on general release on 24 August.
An American trailer which gives a taste of the film’s style:
I enjoyed this film very much – just the right antidote to miserable weather on a Sunday. As one of the blurbs reads, you wouldn’t expect a story that begins with a character suffering a form of depression to end up as light and entertaining – but this does. Julia is an English Literature Professor in Rio de Janeiro. The film begins with some chaotic video clips of her tour of the UK, only to then reveal that her partner Antonia has left her. Julia is finding it hard to function at work but is rescued by Hugo whose civil partner Pedro has died. Hugo is an irrepressible character who proposes to buy a new house by the sea and invites Julia and another friend, Lisa (also separated from a partner) to share it. As you might expect, several visitors to the house provide diversions from too much introspection and, in particular, Helena challenges Julia to re-engage with the world.
So Hard to Forget is witty, beautifully acted and nicely presented with a pleasing eye for visual details by director Malu de Martino from a book by Miriam Campello. Despite having several collaborators the script seems to work fine. As Julia, Ana Paula Arósio has the intensity and presence of an actor like Rachel Weisz, who I think she resembles in some ways. Known mostly for her television work in Brazil, she handles this lead role well, portraying a woman who is brilliant but harsh with other people.
The film is currently in the UK on a limited release by Peccadillo Pictures, the LGBT specialists who will give it a UK DVD release in 2012, but it should be on general release as I’m sure it appeals to gay and straight audiences alike. With its references to both Emily Bronte and Virginia Wolf (either of whom might have influenced Julia’s coiffure) and then Sarah Waters and k.d. lang, I’m not sure what this says about Brazilian society, except that one part of it embraces globalised Anglo culture.
In the Peccadillo Pictures Press Notes Malu de Martino has this to say about her choice of subject matter:
“In recent years, Brazilian movies have increasingly dealt with social issues as a vehicle to gain a better understanding of our reality. Films dealing with personal dramas, on the other hand, have been relegated to an inferior category due to the distressful social conditions which countries like Brazil experience.”
I think that this is a good point. It had occurred to me that the film didn’t look ‘Brazilian’ – in fact it looked and felt more like some of the independent films I’d seen from Argentina. That’s probably my ignorance, but de Martino has certainly made a useful challenge to any preconceptions about Brazilian films seen overseas.
Trailer (with English subs):
This is a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy/drama with excellent performances and witty dialogue. What’s interesting, I guess, is that it is classified as an independent movie because a) it is about a lesbian couple and their family, b) it is actually co-written and directed by a lesbian director and c) it’s a low-budget film. Watching it in a sparsely-populated multiplex screen at an early evening show on a Tuesday I was struck by how the projectionist seemed to have turned down the volume so that I could hardly hear it when usually in the same multiplex I am deafened. I noticed this because the opening of the movie is relatively quiet in action terms. My feeling is that this is the kind of movie that could have been made in the era of classical Hollywood – if you took away the restraints of the Hays Code.
I did see Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature High Art (Canada/US 1998) but I confess that I don’t remember it well – though I do remember that I enjoyed it. Possibly, I would have enjoyed this latest film even more if there had been more drama. A bit more restraint on behalf of the central characters might have been interesting, but then the joke of the film seems to be, pace the title, that the adults are all over the place emotionally and the kids are quite cool.
The best jokes for me were the ones about organic gardening and I’d like to come out as a straight guy who loves Joni Mitchell and especially ‘Blue’.
So, kudos to everyone involved and thanks for a great night out. But I fear that this crowd pleasing will push out Winter’s Bone from the awards ceremony and that would certainly be a shame.