Bubble gum breath. Lying in front of the fan in the thirty-degree Celsius summer. Jumping on empty juice boxes. Early teenhood in 2007. Lipstick stains on your glass door from the girl-who-isn’t-your-yours (but you want her to be). Chlorine-scented hair, trips to Burger King, lip-biting-awkward introductions, tear-filled goodbyes, promises, the weight of the world on your tiny shoulders, softness. Heartbreak. Your very first. This is Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies.
Water Lilies, or Naissance des pieuvres (meaning “the birth of the octopi” in French), is the heartfelt product of Sciamma’s final project during her training as a screenwriter at La Fémis. The story is told through the eyes of Marie (Pauline Acquart), a girl breaching her teenage years reluctantly, holding onto her innocence through her timidity, naïveté, and child-like clothing preferences from the early 2000s. The film opens with Marie attending a synchronised swimming competition that enraptures her, motivating her to try to join a team, though she is discouraged as inscriptions do not begin until after summer. The basis of her newfound interest in the sport is not all pure, as she has become infatuated with the captain of the winning team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel), who masquerades as the “Queen Bee” Hollywood trope. Subsequently, Marie takes advantage of her best friend Anne’s (Louise Blachère) position as a synchronised swimmer (playing on a less competitive team than Floriane) to attend one of their parties where she will finally get the opportunity to talk to Floriane. Marie asking Floriane to get her access to the pool turns into a give-and-take relationship where in return, Marie stands in as Floriane’s alibi when she goes to spend time with her boyfriend. This relationship, complicated by the disarray of teenage feelings and queer youth, shifts and transforms throughout the course of the film, calling into question notions of femininity, desire, female friendship, and the calamity of teenhood.
In the past thirteen years, Céline Sciamma has been no stranger to the milieu of contemporary cinema. Since Water Lilies, she has written and directed three other features: Tomboy (2011), Girlhood (2014), and most recently, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020). Over the past year in particular, she has penetrated every corner of film journalism, on everything from the female gaze to the lesbian imaginaire to radical feminism. Her work has been on the front lines of French cinema, used as material for university entrance exams like the infamous La Fémis, and is cited in feminist theory books like Iris Brey’s Le Regard Féminin, in which she shares a chapter with the legendary female filmmakers: Jane Campion and Alice Guy-Blanché. Her name has been displayed in bold at BAFTA events and has been engraved on myriad trophies for awards (the Cannes Prix du Scénario, no less) in the past year, but the revolutionary politics of her cinema are not new. Incidentally, they can be traced back as early as her remarkable début feature film.
Water Lilies was the first instance backing the thesis that when Sciamma makes a film, it changes the genre, the spectrum, and the grand scheme of cinema. Standards are raised, criteria shift, and thoughts progress. This undeniable impact is perhaps due to Sciamma’s politics and belief system bleeding through to the screen. Just out of film school with nothing cinematic credited to her name, Sciamma did not attempt to shy away from completely subverting the notion of the patriarchy by employing the female gaze in Water Lilies. As it is a coming-of-age film, there may be a question mark as to how and why the female gaze is essential. Unlike Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), there is no spellbinding love story, no attempt to transverse the skull into one’s mind and interact with the thoughts of a lover.
Coming-of-age films are not the journey to discover someone else, but to uncover oneself. This is effectively why the female gaze is so essential to the ingenuity of Water Lilies. The target audience is not limited to pubescent teenage girls in a suburb north-west of Paris, so the positioning of the viewer in relation to the protagonist is pivotal to understanding her experience. The female gaze in Water Lilies allows the audience to transformatively identify with Marie, in a way for the mise-en-scene to have the most authentic flow according to Marie’s story. For the protagonist to be a teenage girl who incidentally happens to be a lesbian, the stakes are raised; the identification process would be hard to do for the vast majority of the film’s viewers if the filmmaker had not had similar experiences. It is effortless for the viewer to experience Marie’s desire to become closer to Floriane, to feel her jealousy jetting across the screen when Floriane chooses her boyfriend, to feel her pain at the thought that she may be taken advantage of by Floriane. The dramatisation of these trivial, yet characteristically adolescent experiences is precisely how the female gaze is necessary to a coming-of-age story.
What is represented on screen cannot be incidental; filmmakers have a responsibility to their audience. This somehow was a reflex for Sciamma from the very beginning. She did not need to ponder what could and could not be shown on screen in order to nurture her audience and coax her viewers into her cinematic universe. This prodigal intrinsicality is what allowed Water Lilies to act as a precocious flagship in #MeToo cinema, implementing itself in contemporary sediment a full ten years before allegations started to surface, and even longer before it began to shape the way cinema is made (this shaping process has not been too momentous thus far). One of the key scenes representing this radical decision is where Marie’s and Floriane’s trajectories finally intersect on the same wavelength. Just after Marie decides that she is through with acting as a stand-in for Floriane as she galavants with her boyfriend, Floriane does not equally retaliate; instead she fills the space between them, she confesses that she is a virgin and has never slept with François, abandons plans with her boyfriend, and they both go on a walk, after Marie chooses to believe her. Marie, wide-eyed and waxing in her desire for Floriane, and Floriane, warrior-like and shielding herself in her own mystery, ultimately equilibrate in a scene shot on a steep, outdoor cement set of stairs, distantly overlooking the skyline of Paris. The sky is blue and wide open, and the camera is looking upward at Marie and Floriane, equidistant, showing two young women on the verge of living their lives. The audience’s perceptions of each of them shift; the screen is torn down and the masks are pulled off in the vulnerability of each of them towards one another and the vulnerability of characters to the audience. The audience, at this point, is also vulnerable, because we realise that we have been fooled by whom these girls were before. It is as if the audience is shown the archetypes propagated by coming-of-age films in the male gaze – static, flat female characters, fulfilling their destinies in Hollywood Entertainment culture, and suddenly the tape is spun backward and Sciamma removes the screen to allow us to transparently see into these girls’ lives.
Traversing the cinematography, on the steps that divide two crucial halves of the film, Marie and Floriane talk about the female experience more candidly than is normally displayed even in adult films. Through cool-girl, nervous laughter, Floriane leaves everything to the wind. She narrates to Marie how all of the girls from the swim team dislike her, how she feels misunderstood, and while performing even more, Floriane chronicles the ways in which men have sexually harassed or assaulted her, her head-swimmer smile never faltering to safeguard herself from the disbelief hat she anticipated on the part of Marie. She repeats the words that she has probably heard from adults her whole life, almost like a mantra: “it’s flattering…”, which is then rapidly combated by Marie’s “it’s disgusting,” and compromises with “it’s life.” After years spent competing in a sport that is disfigured with internalized misogyny, Marie’s effortless belief in her words is in essence, the speck of dust that cracks her wide open, allowing her to confide. Sciamma shows that the beauty of women communicating ideas in a space not contaminated with patriarchal sentiment, how in most cases, women can only feel authentically seen in the absence of men. From there on, Sciamma tells the story of a friendship between two women where friendships as such are not meant to exist. They are not meant to exist in cinema anyway, or in the line of view of the public, because two young women flourishing independently of men is effectively the antidote to the patriarchy. Female-female competition is shown far too often on screen and discredits the empathy that young girls can have for each other when not influenced by men.
Unfortunately though, the patriarchal influence is not eliminated. Sciamma is writing a realistic story for a modern audience. The truth behind female-female friendships like that of Marie and Floriane exists; it is just all too often that these pearls are erased from the screen. The topic of virginity as social currency is a constant throughout. By the start of the film, Floriane has already adapted to her image of promiscuity, so much so that she does not want her boyfriend to think otherwise. In many attempts to redirect François from the possibility of them having sex for the first time, she has run out of solutions as he knows that her parents will be out of town. To her, there is nothing worse than admitting to François that she is not the sexually experienced teenaged Venus that he believes her to be. Floriane, in a panic, therefore capitalizes on the only alliance that can provide a solution for this problem that does not lead to breaking up with François. She begs Marie to be her first, to help her lose her virginity so that there is no physical evidence that shows otherwise when she would eventually sleep with François. This request turns into the second “give-and-take” or social exchange of the film, but with more heightened emotional stakes. Floriane will lose her virginity by Marie, and Marie will engage in physical intimacy with Floriane. However, neither of these landmarks will fulfill the true desires of either one of them because Floriane will not have the years of experience that François believes and Marie will not have the love and affection from Floriane that she craves, and ultimately Marie is aware of the reality of her return.
This combination of desires, secrets, and plans yields what is ultimately the most jarring and raw scene of the film. In Floriane’s childhood bedroom, in her single bed, she undresses waist down under the covers, lying flat on the bed staring straight up, gaze unfaltering from the ceiling. Marie, physically so much smaller than her, visibly nervous but determined, and arched up on her elbow and pivoted towards Floriane, breaks Floriane’s hymen. There are tears, there is tangible pain for each character, but most importantly, there is unwavering, mutualistic consent. Along with the undoing of each character stereotype, Sciamma manipulates the conventional “love scene” of a film, that may or not show consent or autonomy on the part of the woman, and voids everything else so that the scene is filled only with consent and no romantic love at all. Though this scene fits the criteria of “Floriane losing her virginity,” it was not at all taken and there was no deflowering – that is to say that it was 100% an autonomous choice without the romanticisation around the act that so often poisons young girls’ (and boys’) minds. Marie does not believe there is anything to gain and so the audience is left with a portrait of unbridled sisterhood, of two girls weathering the heat of the patriarchy, while dodging the insidious obstacles of living within it.
There is such a great deal of commentary to be made on this film, but the point is that in 2020, nearly thirteen years after its release, such commentary must be made. Films continue to be produced that push young women like Floriane and Marie into shadows, directors still feel that there is a necessity to display unconsensual sex on screenplay (spoiler alert: there never is), and voices of female ingenuity are perpetually silenced. Furthermore, we find ourselves witnessing the cultural applause of a director guilty of pedophilia and rape charges in the same cinematic industry and era as women sharing their experiences publicly so that the gravity of the female experience is not relegated – and we are ultimately discouraged. The shift in cinematic priority is slow, but in treasuring and speaking about films, uplifting female auteurs like Céline Sciamma, we are placing the cultural valour on the voices who will catalyse this shift. To quote Sciamma, “fiction is not a safe place for female characters,” but in Water Lilies, there is a beating heart that begins to prove her wrong.
by Ariel Klinghoffer
Ariel K. is a bilingual Philly native transported across the Atlantic to France. She has degrees in Neuroscience and French, but is currently teaching English and experimenting with other things like film, writing, and photography. She thinks films are some of the strongest forms of activism, especially ones that construct the female gaze, and would trust her favorite filmmaker, Céline Sciamma with her life. Her favorite favorite film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her favorite book is Normal People, and her favorite candy is Kinder Bueno white. Twitter: @qqnenfeu. Letterboxd: @qqnenfeu