In Céline Sciamma’s directorial debut, she explores ideas about what it’s like to grow up and be in love. Water Lilies stands apart from other films in its unique portrayal of these themes, painting a portrait of adolescent love and discovery through the use of observation, objects, and rituals. These thematic elements, combined with Sciamma’s heartfelt direction, make for a distinctive, romantic coming-of-age film.
Water Lilies begins with Marie (Pauline Acquart) watching her best friend Anne’s (Louise Blachère) synchronized swimming meet, appearing to be uninterested. Her attention stirs, however, when she spots Floriane (Adèle Haenel), an older girl on a more experienced swim team. Marie attempts to sign up for swimming classes after this encounter, but is told she will have to wait until the fall. She asks Floriane if she will let her sit in on practices, to which she agrees, as long as Marie returns the favor. This starts the complicated central relationship of the film, as Marie struggles with her growing feelings in the midst of constant mixed messages. In a parallel storyline, Anne attempts to woo the pool boy François (Warren Jacquin). The only thing is, François is chasing after Floriane, leading the story into a complicated triangle of unrequited love and the discovery of sexuality.
For a film released in 2007, the complex portrayal, yet total simplicity, of young sexuality is impressive. Marie is the main character, and it is clear from the first scene that the film will be about her and Floriane. Most of the story is about her exploring these emotions, which she is given space to do; her only problem is dealing with them. Marie pursues Floriane from the beginning, with no explainable reason other than the fact that she is fascinated by her — she simply has a crush. However, there are few films that allow adolescent girls to be in love with other girls.
This exploration of sexuality continues in Floriane. She is thought to be a ‘slut’ by her teammates, but confesses to Marie that she has never had sex, despite all her meetups with François. She struggles throughout the film with having sex with men. She feels it is something she must do — not something that is desired. This reluctance is juxtaposed with her interest in Marie, and although the intimate scenes between them are usually interrupted, or followed by Floriane chasing after a boy, there is more honesty in these interactions. Existing within a heteronormative world, Floriane feels she has to pursue these men, and this constant push and pull of her relationship with Marie is the central emotional conflict of the film.
Sciamma uses this conflict to explore the intense feelings of love, specifically infatuation. These girls are going through these feelings for the first time — they do not have the vocabulary or reference point on how to deal with the constant ups and downs of the emotions that love can bring. Instead, they perform rituals and use objects to express what they are feeling. Anne devises multiple schemes in order to garner François’ attention. In one scene, she buries her bra in his backyard, hoping this will finally get him to notice her.
In order to get closer to, and better understand, Floriane, Marie cherishes the items she gets from her. She is given one of Floriane’s medals from her swim competition, which she hugs closely to her chest. Later, she steals Floriane’s trash and brings it home. She examines each item with care: she rolls out a crumpled piece of paper, and smells a tissue. Yet, the ultimate moment that displays her infatuation is when she takes a bite out of a rotten apple from the trash pile.
In these quiet moments with the characters, Sciamma lets us see their minds and their hearts. Marie yearns for Floriane, but doesn’t know how to say the words, and biting the rotten apple represents her inability to express these feelings. Her shyness and hesitance towards Floriane prevent her from doing anything close to making a move.
Part of Marie’s reserve is shown through how much she observes Floriane. This illustrates the infatuation Marie has, but also investigates how we look at people. Sciamma has thoroughly explored the ‘act of looking’ in her latest film, but the idea is planted here in her debut. There are many scenes where Marie is only looking at Floriane, with little to no dialogue taking place. In one of the first scenes, Marie watches Floriane change in the locker room. This is done with her head down and her eyes shyly gazing. In a later scene, Floriane watches Marie change. She does this act more directly than Marie had, which demonstrates the difference between their dispositions. This parallel in behavior also distinguishes the change in the girls’ relationship, since Floriane has now shown to have feelings for Marie.
Water Lillies also feeds into the reality that young love can be incredibly painful. Both Anne and Marie constantly have to watch the subjects of their affection run off with each other. When Anne sees Floriane and François making out at a party, she runs outside and throws her arms around a lamppost, sobbing into the night. Marie has to tag along to Floriane’s hookups, and even accompanies her to a club where Floriane wants to find a man to sleep with. In this scene, Floriane gets unbearably close to kissing Marie, but is yanked away by a guy, leaving Marie to run out and cry silently on the steps, while Floriane acts as if nothing happened. It is the cruelest of scenes. When Marie returns home, she kisses a lipstick stain that Floriane had previously left on her backdoor.
It is a unique power that Sciamma possesses: to portray longing in the most gratified of ways. Marie’s infatuation with Floriane is romantically sad — despite the pain and yearning she feels, she still goes on loving her. Marie is content in her misery, because sometimes it leads to something indescribable.
These overwhelming emotions Marie experiences end up making her stronger in the end, or at least help her attain self-realization. At the end of the film, Marie has the courage to drag Floriane away from the boys at the party to kiss her in the bathroom, but Floriane leaves, asking Marie to save her if the guy is a jerk. Devastated, Marie goes out to the pool and jumps in, drowning in her feelings. How could she ever recover? Amidst heartbreak, it seems as if she never will, but Anne is there. Even after fighting and getting caught up in their love interests, the two girls still come back together. Even though each of them are reeling from broken hearts, it’s okay because they have their best friend — because they are loved.