7 October 2009 | JamesHitchcock
A Highly Promising Newcomer
The significance of French title of this film, "La Naissance des Pieuvres" which literally means "The Birth of the Octopuses", is rather obscure, so it is perhaps not surprising that it has been marketed in English-speaking countries as "Water Lilies". The "lilies" of the English title are three teenage girls, Marie, Anne and Floriane, who are members of a synchronised swimming team based in the Paris suburbs, and the film is a "coming-of-age" drama about the development of their first sexual feelings.
One feature of the film, perhaps unusual for a film of this type, is that it concentrates exclusively on relationships between the young people themselves. We see nothing of their parents or their teachers, and very little of the adult world at all. The three girls are very different in appearance, and are portrayed as being very different in character. The shy, retiring Marie is slim and petite and appears to be the youngest of the three. Anne is something of a plain Jane, Floriane a glamorous blonde who is very popular with the boys. The three, together with a handsome male swimmer named Francois, are involved in what might be described as a love-quadrilateral.
Anne has fallen in love with Francois, but he is smitten with Floriane, who seems to return his affections, although he is by no means her only male admirer. Indeed, not all of Floriane's admirers are male, because Marie has a crush on her attractive friend. The film charts the way in which their friendship develops; at first it seems that Floriane is simply using Marie as a convenient excuse when she is in fact going out to meet boys; her parents presumably object to her dating boys, but have no objection to her going out with female friends. Later, however, we realise that, despite Floriane's image as the sexy, popular girl who is always the centre of male attention, she actually reciprocates Marie's feelings. The film reverses some conventional stereotypes about sexuality. Anne, with her short hair and rather chunky figure, looks typically "butch", yet she is the only one of the three main characters who is unambiguously heterosexual, whereas the more conventionally feminine Marie and the glamorous Floriane are lesbian, or at least bisexual.
Coming-of-age films are common enough, although most of them tend to avoid the controversial topic of teenage lesbianism. "Water Lilies", however, deals with its subject-matter in a sensitive way, with three very good performances from its three leading actresses, Pauline Acquart, Adele Haenel and Louise Blachere. The relationships between the characters, especially that between Marie and Floriane, are complex, and capable of a number of interpretations. (Is Floriane, for example, simply using Marie for sex, or does she genuinely have romantic feelings for her? Could Floriane's sluttish behaviour with Francois and the other boys be just a device to hide her lesbian feelings from the outside world? Or even to hide them from herself?) This was the first film made by its young director Celine Sciamma (only 27 at the time); on this basis she must be regarded as a highly promising newcomer. 7/10