Film-Forward Review: WATER LILIES


Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Adèle Haenel as Floriane 
Pauline Acquart as Marie
Photo: Koch Lorber Films

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Directed & Written by Céline Sciamma
Produced by Bénédicte Couvreur & Jèrôme Dopffer
Director of Photography, Crystel Fournier
Edited by Julien Lacheray
Music by Para One
Released by Koch Lorber Films
French with English subtitles
France. 85 min. Not Rated
With Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachère, Adèle Haenel & Warren Jacquin

In baring teen girl issues, Water Lilies goes well beyond the Hollywood films of cheerleader and soccer competitions or mean girls in the cafeteria and at the prom. In her debut feature, writer/director Céline Sciamma has hit on a stunningly effective visual metaphor for their social paradigm, a synchronized swimming team. Sciamma frankly and sensitively packs in a lot of the adolescent yearning for conformity above the water line and the individual churning down below – peer pressure, physical insecurity, romance, and sexual exploration, girls with boys and girls with girls.

The film intimately focuses on three archetypal girls. Pretty queen bee Floriane (Adèle Haenel, the only one with previous film experience) is the team captain, icily controlling the graceful choreography as well as what base the cute captain of the boys’ swim team, François (Warren Jacquin), can get to with her (or whatever sports analogy French kids use). The chubby outsider Anne (Louise Blachère in a fearless performance) is relegated to supervising the little kids, but she boldly challenges the socially hierarchical cliques and aggressively baits François. As both girls’ confidante, the younger follower Marie (Pauline Acquart) is the central hinge and the primary observer; she is as fascinated and afraid of the deep end of the pool as she is of her emerging feelings toward Floriane.

A shoplifted necklace eventually passes from one girl to another, symbolizing the entanglements of the complex interrelationships among the four. Sciamma is unusually perceptive at the step-by-step untangling of the new urges and confused emotions that bring them together, and breathtakingly examines the mysterious chemistry of intense female adolescent friendships that are a safe yet complex venue for experimentation. Each girl learns a lot about herself (no wonder boys are clueless), but without really understanding the others.

Cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s camera follows the girls much like Gus Van Sant follows boys in Elephant and Paranoid Park. Sciamma avoids the disturbing feel of Larry Clark’s Kids, but her film is just as explicit. Her compassion for each of the girls keeps emotionally and physically naked scenes from just tipping over into exploitation or debasement. An awkward weakness for American audiences in a film so evocative of contemporary teen interactions is the British slang in the subtitle translations. But the body language is so expressive even the lost subtleties can be inferred.

There are many films that focus on the destructive power one girl can wield over another (Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Anne-Sophie Birot’s Girls Can’t Swim, or Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love). While she touches on those realities, Sciamma sympathetically shares the positive and negative aspects of difficult rites of passage in a wet microcosm, providing an opportunity for fruitful, albeit challenging, discussions between mothers and daughters, and among girlfriends. Nora Lee Mandel
April 4, 2008



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us