Who wouldn’t love to watch a movie about the sexual awakenings of 15-year-old girls, especially French girls that spend a good portion of the film frolicking in swimsuits (sometimes not even that) and kissing each other? Water Lilies may seem like the dream movie for every male pervert, but beneath the surface, this film is a frank coming of age study that is intimately relatable to the female viewer.
Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres) is the story of three pubescent girls, Marie (Pauline Acquart), Floriane (Adèle Haenel) and Anne (Louise Blachère) who flirt and play with boys and girls alike in the summer days of a Parisian suburb. Marie is the shy late-bloomer who has a burgeoning crush on a girl, Floriane is the irresistible but lonely siren who is secretly a virgin and Anne is the plump, amusing friend whose world revolves around one Speedo-clad male out of her league. They hope, seduce and confess within the world of competitive synchronized swimming. Marie is initially drawn to the junior team and to its captain Floriane, who lets her tag along in exchange for favors that become increasingly impure.
The movie’s captivating force lies in its ability to immediately plunge a woman into the irritating remembrances of her early teenage days. It’s not so much that one specifically identifies with the girls’ sexual tendencies or particular behaviors (after all, who really becomes obsessed to the point that she steals and eats garbage from the object of her affections?), but rather one can completely relate to the emotions that their circumstances cultivate. The film strips down all the joviality of youth and presents adolescence in its fundamental form — a time of confusion and pure anxiety.
Director Céline Sciamma wonderfully imbues every scene with the overwhelming feelings of sexual tension and innocent perplexity. Are the characters aware of the effect that they have on each other? Is every glance, every touch, every word explicitly meant to convey intentions not wholly chaste? It is difficult for the audience to ascertain, and it is equally maddening for the girls on screen, especially when one gesture breaks hearts, shatters dreams and feels like it carries the weight of the world. Their emotions are unfamiliar, volatile and as powerful as tidal waves.
Some viewers may find the movie painfully slow and lacking much plot. And, granted, certain individuals may obtain some Lolita-esque gratification from watching Floriane overtly seduce Marie and from Anne, who spends most of the movie unaccompanied by her clothes. Even though it is only 85 minutes long, the movie runs at a sluggish pace with little dialogue or action. However, it utilizes the intensity of words unspoken to convey the uncomfortable nature of pre-adulthood, with all its unexplored possibilities, constraints and torments. The scarcity of dialogue is well complemented by some stunning underwater camera shots and the film’s dynamic and haunting score, which highlights the events’ immediacy and explosiveness. Sweeping electronic melodies and a gorgeous viewpoint culminate into an inspiring final scene that is nothing short of sublime.
Many movies tend to portray an idealized construct of adolescence, but Water Lilies does not make us wish that our teenage days could have been like that of the girls in the film. Instead, it reminds us of life exactly as it once was — painful and awkward. Perhaps the best part about this movie is that after it hurtles us down memory lane, it makes us incredibly thankful that this angst-ridden and confusing phase of our lives is over. We are no longer exploring brand-new waters, hesitant about our boundaries and the veracity of our feelings,.
Then again, maybe relationships never do lose their awkwardness and uncertainty. Perhaps we just get more and more used to them and become less hesitant to hold our breaths and dive into the deep end, each time hoping that we will have enough practice to simply kick our legs and swim effortlessly to the surface.
Water Lilies is playing tonight at Cornell Cinema in Willard Straight Hall at 7:15 p.m.