What makes a good story? Surely something more than observation. But, meticulously observed and yet wonderfully understated in a way that is sharply true to life, Water Lilies demonstrates that voyeuristic glimpses into the lives of others can prove more powerful than any special effects. This film embodies chic French style with its artful portrait of adolescent life. Written and directed by Celine Sciamma: after acquiring attention at this year’s Cannes Film Festival it is now building a steady European following.
Anne (Louise Blachere) and Marie (Pauline Acquart) are best friends. Anne is a chubby outsider with a childishly free spirit and a relentlessly absent mother. Marie presents a more sober front, all controlled actions and penetrating silences. Floriane (Adele Haenel) is the captain of the local junior synchronised swimming team, but, breaking the traditions of the sports captain clich, she is unanimously disliked by her fellow team mates who are disgusted by her flirtatious and explicit relationships. Brought together by the culture and rules of the swimming pool, the three girls find love and sexuality, friendship and loneliness with and without each other.
All three leading females are superb, Louise Blachere in particular: her tragi-comic Anne plays both naive and cunning. However, as is all too common in art-house films about a youthful generation, Celine Sciammas script sentences all three central characters to a life of improbable dramatic tension and confusion in the interests of good drama. While the characters always hold true it’s impossible to escape the feeling that the plot has been contrived to hit hard and no-one could feasibly come away from this film feeling enlightened about what goes on behind parents backs in small Parisian suburbs.
However Sciamma does give us a beautiful and three-dimensional portrait of the comings and goings of these three girls at this moment in their lives. It is a fanciful look at life as we feel it could be, full of a magnificent beauty won out from tedium and routine.
Sciamma has avoided labelling the film under the gay film banner despite several sexually experimental scenes and it is a decision that seems sensible. There is no great sexual awakening for any of these girls: indeed, they leave us as they found us, unsure, fragile, cautiously fierce. It is a strangely haunting and attractive experience, with a voyeuristic charm that is difficult to ignore. All three characters are given just enough detail to spark curiosity and sympathy and just enough enigma to remain interesting.
While there’s no doubt that Water Lilies is bound for a life under the foreign films banner, there is a curiously international feel to this French language film. Sciamma has captured the striking beauty of ugly private struggle. As Marie, Anne and Floriane fight their way into the adult world, they create a scrambling and messy dazzler of a film that is as captivating as it is intelligent. Rounded, unpredictable, and free from the constraints of beginning, middle and end, the film stumbles from event to event in a brief snapshot of three lives lived with more clarity than our own. Somewhere in the messy web three girls fall in love, find themselves, lose themselves, and end up just as happily confused as they were before.