Writer-director Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies / Naissance des pieuvres is a film about teens beginning to discover who they are. It is also a film that actually stars teens – as opposed to mid-twenty-year-olds playing teens – without exploiting that fact in any way.
Set in a high-school pool, from the first scene you realize that in Water Lilies synchronized swimming is not a mere plot device; it's an intrinsic part of the film and of the characters' lives. If you've never given synchronized swimming much respect as a serious sport, you may do so after seeing the amount of timing, coordination, and athleticism necessary to be on a synchronized swim team.
The plot is deceptively simple: Marie (Pauline Acquart) has a crush on the female varsity synchronized swim-team captain Floriane (Adele Haenel), but the latter is oblivious to Marie's existence. At least, that is the case initially. Wanting to be near Floriane, Marie tries out for the swim team and the two eventually meet. They become friends by default: all the other girls on the swim team believe that Floriane is a slut, a perception she does nothing to dispel. To the contrary, she actually fosters it, apparently enjoying the reputation of having slept with multiple male partners.
Why Floriane would desire such a reputation is never explained. Maybe she likes the notoriety and the attention from the opposite sex that comes with it. Indeed, Floriane's reputation has afforded her the attention of a boy she likes, François (Warren Jacquin), who wants to have sex with her. They haven't done it yet – though they've probably done everything but. However, if François just hangs in there, he believes Floriane will eventually consent.
That liaison ends up strengthening the bond between Marie and Floriane, for one girl becomes the other's confidante. As a result of this bond and Floriane's necessity to live up to her reputation, the two friends are motivated to share something quite special in the third act. It is not what you think. (That scene reminded me of a particular event that transpires in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. I won't say what it is so as not to ruin the surprise.)
Also, I must add that even though the scene in question is quite important, it is not the most memorable moment in Water Lilies. That takes place when a dream comes true for one of the lead characters. Most – if not all – of us have been in that type of situation at some point in our lives, whether it was romantic-, family-, or work-related. With a little encouragement, Marie, unflinchingly, doesn't let her chance pass her by. She grabs the bat, steps right up to the plate, and swings. This stroke will leave some scratching their heads in confusion, annoyance, and/or frustration – but none more so than Marie herself.
In Water Lilies (whose original French title translates as “Birth of Octopuses,” in reference to the girls' underwater leg movements) Céline Sciamma stirs the elements of friendship, infatuation, puberty, “first loves,” and “first times” in a world enclosed within the marble of high-school pool sports.
The performances by the three female leads – the third lead is Marie's best friend, Anne, played by Louise Blachère – are effective and realistic (though not as well-rounded as those found in Thirteen). For instance, their posture, facial expressions, and hand movements clearly convey what the girls are feeling or thinking at key moments.
In sum, Water Lilies is the epitome of the coming-of-age film: sensual, romantic, at times nonsensical. It is an honest portrait of countless adolescent relationships.
© Reginald Williams
Water Lilies / Naissance des pieuvres (2007).
Dir. / Scr.: Céline Sciamma.
Cast: Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachère, Adele Haenel, Warren Jacquin, Christelle Baras.