Water Lilies (whose French title, Naissance des pieuvres , translates literally but less poetically as Birth of the Octopuses) begins brilliantly as it introduces us to its three central characters. Marie (Pauline Acquart) watches the local girls' synchronized swimming team as it performs in regional competition. She seems beguiled by lead swimmer Floriane (Adele Haenel), a lovely blonde teen who attracts both men and boys but is labeled a slut by her teammates. Marie wins Floriane's favor by serving as her alibi when she goes out on clandestine dates. Marie doesn't like her role but seems desperate to be near Floriane at any cost - including sacrificing her longtime friendship with Anne (Louise Blachere), an awkward and girlishly chubby swimmer who's obsessed with a water polo player (Warren Jacquin) who only has eyes for Floriane. The girls talk about sex, express doubts, engage in cruel maneuvers, and struggle through confused emotions and ambivalent desires.
With no parents or authority figures to be found, these girls move unsupervised through their teenage angst. Initially, the backdrop of the synchronized swimmers proves vividly effective. There's a surreal quality to the sport as the team of swimmers move in perfect unison and with frozen smiles and garish make-up. The absurd almost clownish exaggeration of their heavily made up, mask-like faces serves up a perverse vision of femininity while the rigid conformity of the sport suggests a lack of individual identity. Sciamma uses the synchronized swimming as a metaphor for what society tries to mold young girls into, but these three young girls are doing their best to resist. At one point Marie watches the synchronized swimmers from underwater and is mesmerized by the difficult and almost unattractive amount of work going on below the surface to maintain the elegance above. As she watches you are not sure if she is amazed at the effort or startled by the contrast. But as she pursues Floriane and feels her attraction growing more sexual, we sense that she wants to break rules.
Below the surface of Water Lilies (Fox Lorber)
The assurance of the first half of the film makes for a rapturous and lyrical exploration of young female longing, envy, and heterosexual and same sex desires. But as the film progresses its effectiveness diffuses into self indulgent, almost soft-core porn excesses that drag the film out without moving the characters in any new directions.
The three young performers all excel. Acquart is quiet and observant, and in some ways more deliberately manipulative than Floriane. She has a lovely scene in which she ponders ceilings as the last thing most of us see before we die, and she reveals that she is the most contemplative and aware of the three girls. Haenel is radiant and captivating, and just beginning to become aware of her power to wrap people around her little finger. Meanwhile Blachere's Anne reveals an immaturity but surprising resilience.
Water Lilies (unrated but for mature audiences and in French with English subtitles) clocks in under 90 minutes but it feels much longer as it gets lost in the languid stares and nubile bodies of the last act. The confidence and fresh female perspective that Sciamma displays in the first half of the film is missed in the final reel. But Sciamma reveals a promising talent in terms of creating a striking visual style and intimate mood.
Companion viewing: Peppermint Soda, The Fat Girl, The Holy Girl