Water Lilies Review
Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres) introduces the viewer into an esoteric world of secret codes of behaviour known only to the initiated – the rite of passage known as female adolescence. For a male that world is one that is almost completely unfathomable, but, as a number of recent films have attested to, it’s a troubling experience that that is no less complicated for females. Challenging material for any filmmaker, but particularly for a first-time director, Sciamma however handles the subject with delicacy, managing to present it from several different perspectives, as well as finding for it a quite wonderfully unique and meaningful setting.
The film looks at the experience of adolescence from the varied perspective of three 15 year-old girls. There’s Anne (Louise Blachère), the slightly overweight girl not entirely comfortable with her body, lacking self-confidence, and sensitive, her feelings easily crushed, particularly when the object of those affections is François (Warren Jacquin), the handsome young boy who is currently dating the beautiful, talented, outgoing and self-confident Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Floriane’s natural grace and glamour exert a powerful attraction over Marie (Pauline Acquart), a younger girl not yet physically or emotionally developed, who is confused at the sensations evoked by her first sexual impulses. The glamorous Floraine however is not as experienced or as sure of herself as Marie and the other girls think, and when she turns to Marie to help her out of a predicament with her boyfriend, Marie’s loyalties to her friend Anne and her own confused impulses towards Floriane put the young girl in a difficult position.
In many respects, these are fairly standard young female character types, but it doesn’t make them any less representative of the experience of many girls. Sciamma moreover finds a unique and effective way of exploring the deeper personalities and sensations that lie within each of the girls through her choice of location and situation. The obvious setting for such a subject would traditionally be in and around the classroom, as it was for a similar exploration of teenage sexuality in another debut feature from a young French female director in 2007, Lola Doillon’s Et toi, t’es sur qui?. Water Lilies however is set almost entirely in and around a swimming pool, where each of the girls are performers in synchronised swimming groups. Cinematographically it’s an inspired choice, but taking them out of any social context, it also serves to effectively and literally strip the characters down, bringing their essential personal characteristics more sharply into focus. Anne, the large, overweight girl, stands out starkly from the other members of her team, Marie is the inexperienced beginner looking for her first lessons, while Floriane is a picture of grace and beauty, her every movement calculated and executed to perfection. Beneath the surface however, she is kicking and thrashing as hard as any of the others, and is starting to feel out of her depth.
More than the obvious swimming metaphors, the enclosed nature of the pool location and the lack of any specific outside social context provided by the Parisian suburbs of Cergy, Val d'Oise (whose neutral qualities were also used to similar effect by Eric Rohmer in My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend), emphasises the atemporal and universal qualities of the film’s subject matter. Such a studious approach however is perhaps at the cost of a more realistic depiction of how modern teenagers react and interact, and it does take the standard character types very much down a predictable path. While it lacks the edgy modern-day realism of first-time relationships in a film like L’esquive or Et toi, t’es sur qui?, Water Lilies manages to bring out the same intangible qualities of the incipience of femininity as Innocence, without the same reliance on surrealism and heavy symbolism.
At this stage in the lives of its young characters, males and females very clearly belong to two different tribes, and the distinction is well drawn between the animalistic tendencies and group behaviour of adolescent boys and the more esoteric rituals that go along with the female experience. Water Lilies, through its metaphor of synchronised swimming, in this way finds not only a means to express the individual personalities of its female characters, but also the unique solidarity this experience creates between them. For all their differences and the rivalries that exist between them, it’s something that they are all in together, needing that sense of solidarity to guide them not only through the difficulties of adolescence, but to save them from their own dangerous impulses.
Water Lilies is released in the UK by Contender Home Entertainment. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The video transfer is solid without being exceptional in any way. The tone is a little dark, colours are not quite true and, on a single-layer disc, compression artefacts cause minor macroblocking flickering in backgrounds and some issues with shifting grain. Blacks can occasionally be a little flat and troubled with low-level noise. The transfer is however anamorphic at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and it is progressively encoded. Detail is reasonably good throughout and the print is free from any marks whatsoever.
The choice is given between Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes and both are excellent, clear and reasonably dynamic without being overly forceful. The surround mix evidently makes more of the reverb in the swimming pool and disco locations. Dialogue is clearly audible throughout.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional.
Extra features are not extensive – some interviews with the filmmaker as to her intention and approach would have certainly been interesting. What is included is however worth a look. The Casting (4:36) shows screen tests and rehearsals for the three main young girls. One Deleted Scene (5:20) is interesting in that it shows the significant first encounter between Marie and Floriane, making their friendship a little more credible. A few other incidents here also contribute to the development of characterisation of all three girls and their relationships, so it’s strange that, considering the relative short running time of the film, it wasn’t included in the final cut. The film’s Theatrical Trailer (1:39) is also included, an uncommon montage of images cut to the film’s unique original soundtrack.
Céline Sciamma’s debut feature is most impressive in it handling of young actors and in its delicate treatment of the less tangible, almost esoteric rituals of the female adolescent experience, making those qualities evident and highly cinematic through its use of synchronised swimming sequences. With a reasonably good transfer and some effort made to include extra features, Contender’s UK Region 2 mid-price range DVD release can’t be seriously faulted, but it is rather basic. It’s marvellous however that the film has been given a UK release and it’s certainly worth seeing.