Debut director Celine Sciamma’s 2007 Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres in the original French) has proven controversial among movie critics, with many expressing concern or disapproval that it “smacks of child pornography,” “veers uncomfortably close to child pornography,” etc.
Which just goes to show how paranoid and panicky people are about that hot button issue, because this movie is really, really tame in that regard. The main characters are three teenage girls, supposed to be 15-16 years old. There’s kissing, there’s very brief nudity, and there’s even briefer pantomime intercourse where you can’t see anything. I guess that counts as pornography if you’re desperate to find it everywhere you look.
Anyway, Water Lilies is a coming of age story about these girls–a hot one (Adele Haenel), a brooding, nerdy one (Pauline Acquart), and a chubby one (Louise Blachere). It takes place over the course of a summer, where the girls spend much of their time swimming and practicing for the synchronized swim team at the local pool.
Haenel is not a bimbo type who acts ditzy to attract boys, nor is she the kind of person who sees her looks in a positive way as enhancing her life with the opportunities and happiness it makes available. She’s more the type who’s aware of the attention her looks bring and resents it, but grimly takes the attitude, “If I’m stuck being this hot, I might as well use it to manipulate people and get what I want in life.”
She seems to have little or no genuine interest in sex, nor in having a significant relationship with a boy where they actually get to know each other as people. Instead, she’s a pure tease, enjoying the fact that she has a reputation as a slut (though in reality she’s a virgin), because it makes boys think they’re going to get something by dating her, whereas in fact she just strings them along for sport and doesn’t deliver.
Acquart is fascinated with Haenel from the start of the movie, a fascination that either develops into a lesbian attraction, or more likely is one all along. Haenel uses this to manipulate Acquart as she would a boy, disdainfully treating her as a useful flunky in exchange for allowing her in her presence. Later she softens up a bit, and is slightly less of a bitch toward her than she is toward everyone else, though she remains the dominant partner.
Acquart and Blachere are friends, but clash off and on, in part due to Acquart’s obsession with Haenel.
Blachere attempts a strategy opposite that of Haenel with boys; she puts out in an effort to establish an attachment with one by giving him what he presumably wants.
Water Lilies does a decent job of capturing what it feels like to be that age, struggling with friendship, sex, and all the complicated emotions of being half-child and half-adult. It never reached me at a deep level though.
Perhaps it’s just too far removed from my life to stir up the emotions of recognition. Some of these coming of age experiences and emotions are universal I suppose, but not only does this move take place in a foreign culture, but it is completely from the female perspective. (All the males in the movie are as bereft of complexity or an inner life as inanimate objects, perhaps reflecting the fact that the girls can only interact with them as objects, since they haven’t developed any insight into them yet, beyond Haenel’s rudimentary, instinctive ability to manipulate them.) I felt very much an outsider, with my attention often flagging.
In the style of many indie and foreign films, this is one of those movies that lacks a strong central storyline, but instead let’s you spend some time with some people and get a sense for who they are and how they live, and then just kind of ends as they continue to live their lives. There’s not much in the way of a resolution or a climax to the movie.
Also in keeping with many indie and foreign films, there’s less dialogue than in the average mainstream movie, less is explicitly spelled out for the viewer. A fair amount of the time you’re supposed to infer certain things from how people are looking at each other, and the tempo of the music on the soundtrack and such. You need to have a preference, or at least a tolerance, for subtlety and ambiguity to fully appreciate this kind of film.
I see Water Lilies as similar to the 2004 Australian film Somersault in its treatment of the sexual coming of age of teenage girls as being something other than erotic and titillating (making the “kiddie porn” allegations even sillier). In both films, the protagonists are at a stage of life that when they have sex, they don’t seem to particularly enjoy it, and haven’t worked out why or if they should have let it happen in the first place. Sex is very much on their minds, and at some level they want it or think that it’s somehow time to start their sex life, but it’s not something that as yet really has a positive role in their lives.
Water Lilies will be slow and too lacking in a compelling, conventional narrative for many filmgoers, but it’s at least mildly interesting in its treatment of the trials and tribulations of transitioning from childhood to adulthood.