Dir/scr: Celine Sciamma. France 2007. 85 mins
Every Cannes festival brings at least one sexually delicate French coming-of-age drama, and while Water Lilies is hardly mould-breaking, it's certainly an affecting and more than competent addition to the genre.
Set against the eccentric background of synchronised swimming, Celine Sciamma's debut is a sensitive, sometimes witty story of teenage girls coming to grips with their sexuality. High production values, flashes of distinctive humour and extremely strong performances from the film's young unknown cast make the film a cut above average. While domestic success is likely to
be moderate, the film has good prospects with specialist distributors and festivals - especially those with a lesbian and gay focus - who will warm to its no-nonsense integrity.
The setting is one of the featureless, comfortable modern Paris suburbs from which the director herself hails. Marie (Acquart), in her early teens, hopes to get into the local synchronised swimming team of which superior beauty Floriane (Haenel) is captain. Tagging along after Floriane - who's not much liked by other girls, but a serious hit with the boys - Marie finds herself becoming the older girl's accomplice, covering up for her assignations with boyfriend Francois (Jacquin). Meanwhile, Marie's best friend, the gauche, chubby Anne (Blachere) has also set her cap at Francois, with surprising results. But as Marie gets closer to Floriane, their friendship takes an increasingly exclusive, and Sapphic turn, driving a wedge between her and Anne.
Water Lilies turns out to be not at all the gentle, slightly kitsch comedy it initially resembles: increasingly, it touches on similar terrain as Catherine Breillat's A ma soeur! and Virgin without delving into quite so sombre areas. In the first half hour, Sciamma makes much of the downright bizarre nature of synchronised swimming, and the girls' quasi-military movements (which look especially surreal when filmed underwater). But the camp element - along with the swimming theme itself - is gradually displaced by the more intimate theme of the friendship, edging into affair, between Marie and the confused Floriane, whose supposedly carefree sex life isn't all that it seems. The scenes between these two characters have a troubling, indeed daring intensity, given the youth of the actresses, but Sciamma carries them off with sensitive judgment, and Acquart and Haenel acquit themselves with a winningly candid intensity. Blachere's sequences as the ungainly but determined Anne combine a solemn edge with an agreeably broad comic touch.
Sciamma's screenplay has a strong, unsentimental grasp of teenage sexuality as a field of power struggles, especially in such a claustrophobic setting as she depicts here. The film makes vivid use of suburban settings that might seem bland if not for the film's fresh look, with Crystel Fournier's photography adding splashes of intense colour.
Les Productions Balthazar
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