Allusions to Monet may provide a prettier picture, but consider that the
original French title of the film Water
Lilies is Naissance des Pieuvres
— which translates to "birth of the octopuses," those eight-armed
geniuses of aquatic camouflage that are genetically programmed to die after
they reproduce. Association with such a dark fate might explain the anxiety and
awkwardness that engulfs three French girls on the cusp of adult sexualities in
this new film by out lesbian director and screenwriter Céline Sciamma.
delivers a vivid impression of Euro-teen angst set against the backdrop of
competitive synchronized swimming in the Paris
suburb of Cergy. My French friend who spent her childhood near this ville nouvelle built in the 1960s noted
Cergy’s weird but cool modern architecture and its greenery unfortunately
surrounded by too much concrete.
In other words, Cergy sounds like the ideal location for
Sciamma’s warm-weather tale of 15-year-olds overwhelmed by the prospect of
their biological destinies and the confusing novelty of their desires. Their
growing pains unfold in a world almost completely devoid of adult characters
(not to mention the riots that touched this Paris banlieue
in real life last year).
As a result of this teenage perspective, some might think of Water Lilies as My Summer of Love blended with Fat
Girls, spiced with a dash of The
Virgin Suicides. When people over 21 do appear in the film, they are
generally annoying authority figures, such as the female coach who subjects the
young swimmers’ armpits to shaving inspections, or the pervy male coaches who become
aroused around the girls.
Water Lilies opens
with orchestral music and shots of buff deltoids in the girls’ locker room at
the Piscine du Parvis, where skinny misfit Marie (Pauline Acquart) longs to be
part of the indoor synchronized swim team captained by the conventionally
gorgeous Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Outfitted in the universal baby dyke uniform
of Levi’s, old-school Nike basketball kicks, and a regrettably patterned polo
shirt, Marie stares at the choreographed swimmers, wrapped in their glittery
one-pieces, with the kind of single-minded attention that Adele Channing used
to lavish on Jenny Schecter.
Alas, Marie and her friend Anne (Louise Blachère), a budding
indie rocker of voluptuous proportions, inhabit the lower ranks of the teenage
totem pole (or its French equivalent) in Cergy. Their bodies reveal their
peripheral social positions and inadequate self-images: Plump Anne always waits
until she is alone in the locker room to change, and flat-chested Marie removes
her bra stealthily without taking off her shirt.
"I’m not normal," laments Marie to Anne near the
beginning of the film as she hoists boxes of powdered laundry detergent to
prime her twig-like biceps for the rigors of swimming. She even reveals that
one arm is longer than the other.