Director: Céline Sciamma
Stars: Adèle Haenel, Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachère
The film ‘canon’ of the recent past is already being cemented. Award winners and blockbusters cementing themselves as the fenceposts along which cinema history will be strung. In the case of 2007, the shoe-in titles – as with most years – tell a particularly masculine (and American) story. There Will Be Blood. No Country For Old Men. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Zodiac.
But what if there was another canon? One that didn’t just celebrate successful stories of troubled and contentious masculinity? If such room could be made then there are a handful of candidates I would put forward from this incredible year in cinema. Already covered on these pages is Mia Hansen-Løve’s deft debut All Is Forgiven; a feminine coming-of-age story charting a girl’s mutating relationship to her father. Now, let’s add another significant first film issuing out of France; the great Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies.
New on the scene, it’s fitting that Sciamma opened with a tale of initiations and discoveries, but in truth these are concerns that have stayed the course, from her other essays on adolescence (Tomboy, Girlhood, Petite Maman, the script for My Life as a Courgette) and even as far as relative outlier Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The emotional topography of finding oneself presents forever-fresh terrain.
In Water Lilies, 15-year-old Marie (Pauline Acquart) has a crush on fellow student Floriane (Adèle Haenel), who is captain of the school’s prestigious synchronised swimming team. Floriane’s youth, beauty and popularity have garnered her a promiscuous reputation that differs from the actual truth, and this older-than-her-years persona is something she has – somewhat wearily – grown to accept. Eager the get closer to this beacon of sexuality that has appeared in her life, Marie tries to join the team, but is denied entry. Undeterred in her obsession, she befriends Floriane, only to become look-out guard for her crush’s furtive kissing sessions with the local boys. In the process, Marie starts to abandon her more awkward and childlike friend, Anne (Louise Blachère), whose own sexuality is burgeoning in messy and embarrassing ways.
With candid tenacity, Sciamma depicts a tough midway between childhood and young adulthood; a place where cruelty is commonplace and risks are everything. Floriane undeniably abuses Marie’s interest in her, using her new friend as a personal dogsbody, while savvy enough to take an ego boost from her new friend’s flattery. Marie, wide-eyed and in love, forgives eagerly. But Marie herself is cruel, particularly with Anne, whose childishness represents for her a stage in her life that she is eager to move on from. Floriane promises the future. Anne represents the past.
Anne’s knock-kneed naivety is the source of plenty of cringe-comedy here, but Sciamma isn’t afraid to push into uncomfortable terrain, particularly when it comes to Anne’s own crush on a boy named François (Warren Jacquin). For all her awkward self-awareness, Anne makes an exceedingly bold move to declare her interest in François – gifting him a stolen necklace in front of an entire shower room of boys – an overture which is repaid with selfish sexual exploitation.
This necklace traces a short path through the film that underscores the hierarchy between the four key players; given from Anne to François; re-gifted by François to Floriane; and finally re-gifted again by Floriane to Marie. It ascends and descends the invisible social ladder, positioning everyone like Xs on an imaginary graph. A token used to both charm and placate.
Watching the film as adults, we recognise the threats and exposures that these kids are running toward with greater intelligence than they do themselves, and Sciamma uses this to get under our skin. Worried that François will learn she is not a virgin, Floriane drags Marie to a nightclub so that she can have sex with an older man, to get it over and done with. Marie being Marie agrees. In the club, Floriane further flouts her dominance over her friend when they dance together, promising a kiss that she doesn’t deliver before making off with a random stranger. Unwavering in her devotion to Floriane, Marie acts as parent to her friend, saving her from going through with her plan. Her reward is a hug of genuine affection that is beautifully underplayed.
Concerns over exploitation surround the film at large, even as passive viewers. Anyone who has been within earshot of cinema discourse over the past couple of years will recall the furore over Cuties; Maïmouna Doucouré’s film about teenage pageantry that caused senseless uproar when it debuted on Netflix in the late summer of 2020. One wonders whether Water Lilies would have courted similar ire if released afresh today. Sciamma walks a tightrope of decency here, similar to the one Doucouré encountered (and the likes of Larry Clarke before her).
Water Lilies doesn’t blanch at depicting minors as burgeoning sexual beings, and there is something queasily uncomfortable about some of these furtive exchanges (not least for the embarrassing memories they bring back to the surface of our own fretful initiations). But Sciamma’s film is as deft as anything she’s put her name to since. Indeed, it’s remarkable that this is her debut feature. The assurance is astounding. Because of this – wary as we may become – there’s never really any doubt that Sciamma has crafted her movie with strict adherence to on-set safety, eschewing any genuine exploitation. The film is not an advocate for childhood promiscuity, as the finale confirms.
Finally granted a kiss by Floriane – after a more daring yet impersonal sexual encounter together – Marie is left in the bathroom at a party with lipstick staining her face like bruises, while Floriane returns to the dancefloor to bask in her natural environment. Marie washes off the lipstick, but not in the bathroom. Instead, she returns to the school swimming pool, first washing her lips and then jumping into the water, submerging and in effect baptising herself anew.
With this act she draws a line underneath her crush on Floriane. Anne’s arrival at the pool in time with this is perfect. Marie’s childish friend joins her in the water and the two float together, reunited. In this way, it seems clear that Marie has decided that she doesn’t need to rush into adulthood; that there is time enough for all that to come, and she can still enjoy being a kid while she can. Her dalliance with the future is over, for now. Paradoxically, she is now wise enough to be a child.
This reading leaves Floriane as the outsider, and it makes her dancefloor reverie strangely sad. Floriane has had her personality imprinted on her by the patriarchal eyes that have found her all her life. She has become so accustomed to this gaze that she sees no real course away from it. And while she appears in her element in these final scenes – a siren racing toward young adulthood – she is contrasted against Marie and Anne, and a sense of loneliness creeps in, bathed as she is in chilled neon blues (that also compliment the shimmering surface of the pool).
So many technical elements impress here (Sciamma’s command of the frame has never wavered, and her way with a music cue has, it turns out, always been on-point), but the casting is something else. These young actors are tremendous, and their individual gaits, cadences and body types inform the varying stages of adolescence that each character is inhabiting. Tall, blonde and seeming to be naturally aquatic, Haenel seems utterly believable as a girl who appears older and more experienced than she is. Small, quiet and wide-eyed, Acquart makes Marie sensitive and impressionable, torn between touchstones. And Blachère’s deep frown and ungainly posture conjure the insecure Anne into existence. It’s a small wonder to find one young natural in a film. That Water Lilies offers us three is uncanny. And it all feels carefully, tactfully, but unsentimentally shepherded by Sciamma.
A master, from the beginning.