Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres) is a French coming-of-age film that dabbles in the dark waters of budding female sexuality. The film takes a long time to warm up but the wait is well worth it. Plus there’s always the film’s gorgeous cinematography.
Set in the suburbs of Paris during long hot summer days, the film begins with various teams of girls preparing and then participating in synchronized swimming in a large public pool. Marie (Pauline Acquart) is there to watch her best friend Anne (Louise Blanchere) perform, but in reality, Marie moves her seat to get a better look at the striking Floriane (Adele Haenel).
Marie, who’s shrimp of a girl, idolizes Floriane, and it’s easy to see why. In the water, Floriane performs with grace and dexterity–out of the water, she’s not so pleasant. Blonde, tall and shapely, Floriane is loathed by her team members and has the reputation of being the team “slut.” Wherever she goes, males vie for Floriane’s attention, and most of her focus is on Francois (Warren Jacquin), a good-looking popular male swimmer.
Marie begins to neglect her friendship with plump, unpopular Anne, and she tries to join a swimming team. But does she really want to swim or does she need an excuse to hang around Floriane? While Marie is discontent with her body, and even tries on a swimming suit on top of her clothing, Floriane is a study in self-confidence. Marie’s discontent about her body seems to translate to a desire to be like Floriane, and yet there are also strong strains of sexual feelings mingled in with the hero worship. Floriane’s character appears as clearly defined and developed as her body, and Marie’s less defined character appears to waver and then become absorbed in Floriane’s shadow.
Although Floriane rejects Marie’s tentative worship at first, gradually she begins to allow Marie into her life, and Marie, assuming the subordinate position in the relationship, seems content to do favours and provide alibis for Floriane. While Floriane initially seems the stuck-up type: popular, attractive, and confident, her cruel streak appears to be put aside for her friendship with Marie, and yet an edge of cruelty remains. Which is the real Floriane?
Meanwhile, Anne, left to her own devices, begins to have romantic feelings for Francois and makes bold overtures towards him in front of his team mates. Marie’s close friendship with Anne seems ruined, and at the same time, Marie’s new friendship with Floriane doesn’t bode well. Adults stay largely in the film’s background, and the parents are noticeably absent while the teens are left to their own devices.
In some ways, Water Lilies tackles the familiar issues that often crop up in films that focus on teens: sexual inexperience, sexual confusion, conformity, etc. But Water Lilies is a beautiful film that handles these issues with great subtlety and it’s impossible to guess where the film is taking the viewer until the final credits roll.
To say more about the plot would ruin the viewing experience for those out there who haven’t watched the film yet. If you are a fan of French film, and enjoy slow-moving, thoughtful and provocative drama, then chances are that you will enjoy Water Lilies from first time director Celine Sciamma.