Twenty years after Simone de Beauvoir upset the general consensus with her revolutionary thesis that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’, she was forced to recognise that the biological differences between the sexes undermined her theory. What remains true though, is that culture shapes our perception of femininity, a perception that constantly fluctuates between idealisation and demonisation. Both extremes are represented in Céline Sciamma’s compelling Water Lilies, a smart and refreshing cinematic study of nascent womanhood that throws us (and this doesn’t necessarily exclude male audiences) right back into the purgatory of teenage love and sexual confusion.
With little dialogue it is an intense film that, one feels, deeply reflects the director’s personal experience. At only 27 Sciamma has produced a debut feature of emotional strength and beauty, within which psychological insight and social commentary flow easily and implicitly. From the film’s opening scene, which sees young heroine Marie observing the girls of the regional synchronized swimming team frantically paddling underwater in an effort to keep their smiling heads and graceful torsos afloat, Sciamma demonstrates a keen eye for a visual metaphor.
The film charts a few weeks in Marie’s summer of first love. With her big wide eyes and grave gaze, she is quite cute but almost creepily introverted, preferring to observe people to talking to them. Her best – and only – friend Anne (Louise BlachíÂ¨re) is Marie’s opposite, girlish and fun-loving, if occasionally uneasy about her curvy body. While Anne has a huge crush on male swimmer Franí§ois, Marie (Pauline Acquart) is gradually consumed by her desire for the beautiful Floriane (AdíÂ¨le Haenel), captain of the swimming team and the most admired girl in school. As the precarious, uneasy relationship between the two girls develops, the palpable emotional and sexual tension reaches its climax. In a scene of great sensibility and intimacy, Marie gives Floriane her first sexual experience; while Franí§ois, disappointed by Floriane’s lack of response to his advances, wilfully ‘does it’ with Anne.
Although the story of troubled teenage girls trapped in the turmoil of young love is overly familiar, Water Lilies has a unique atmosphere, mainly due to Sciamma’s use of the setting. Beautifully photographed and perfectly served by its emphatic electronic soundtrack, the film captures the sheer awfulness of growing up in a suburban hinterland without having to show more than the swimming pool, a few houses and Marie’s overgrown backyard. With a minimal cast, from which adults are carefully excluded, the film is built around soft close-ups of faces and stunning underwater shots of the swimming team. Its essence is vividly fleshed out through the sparse conversations and visceral, heartbreakingly honest performances of the young actors who are all wonderfully natural.
With obvious sympathy for the three, very different girls portrayed, Sciamma’s concern is to track their painful but determined quest for self-realisation. In the end, nothing is resolved, but everything has changed, and at that very moment being a teenage girl in a teenage world feels oddly right.