Céline Sciamma’s first feature film “Water Lilies”, which is going to be released belatedly in South Korean theaters in next month, is a detached but compelling coming-of-age tale of sexuality and maturation. Mainly revolving around the viewpoint of its young adolescent heroine, the movie often vividly captures her churning state of mind under the calm surface, and that leads to several strong emotional moments alternatively amusing and painful.
When we are introduced to Marie (Paulie Acquart) at the beginning of the film, this teenage tomboy girl is watching a local school swimming competition, in which her close friend Anne (Louise Blachère) eagerly participates even though many other girls apparently look younger or prettier in comparison. As a matter of fact, we do not see how much Anne tries in the swimming pool, but she is happy and excited anyway as being about to demonstrate her swimming skill in front of many others including Marie.
However, Marie’s attention happens to be drawn to Floriane (Adèle Haenel), the captain of the local synchronized swimming team. Once Floriane and other team members enter the swimming pool, they give one hell of show to their audiences as a piece of classic music is loudly played in the background, and their every impeccable movement certainly mesmerizes Marie, who intensely looks at Floriane at the center of the show from the beginning to the end.
Marie subsequently decides to join any local swimming team for looking closer at Floriane, but, alas, she cannot do that right now due to the regulations, so she comes to choose an alternative. She approaches to Floriane on one day, and she asks Floriane whether she can hang around Floriane during her training sessions. Floriane initially does not seem to be not interested much even though Marie shows willingness to do anything in exchange for that, but she eventually agrees to have Marie around her during her training sessions.
What follows next is a series of voyeuristic moments mainly fueled by Marie’s growing sexuality. At first, she simply watches Floriane and her other team members from the distance, but then, as suggested by Floriane later, she comes to look at them in water for closer observation, and she certainly becomes more fascinated with Floriane as watching more of how Floriane and other team members look graceful on the surface while strenuously moving every part of their bodies in the water. As the movie steadily maintains its dry tone, cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s camera palpably conveys to us what strongly attracts Marie, and we accordingly become more empathized with her emotional status.
Often emphasizing the sensual aspects of Floriane and her other team members’ physical appearance in the pool, the movie naturally feels uncomfortable from time to time, but Sciamma aptly reverses usual conventions as presenting Floriane as a girl fully aware of her sexual allure to girls and boys around her. While sometimes tantalizing Marie in deliberate ways, she is mostly occupied with developing a relationship with some handsome boy in the male swimming team, and it goes without saying that Marie feels angry and agonized whenever Floriane cruelly flaunts her relationship with that boy in front of Marie.
Meanwhile, things get more complicated as Anne unwittingly become involved in this tricky circumstance. After a rather unpleasant incident between her and the aforementioned boy, Anne begins to pursue him actively, but, of course, he does not give a damn about her at all, and this subsequently affects her relationship with Marie, who becomes more distant from her friend as coming to spend more time with Floriane.
Needless to say, Floriane is the de facto femme fatale in the story, but, not so surprisingly, she eventually turns out to be as clueless as the other main characters in the story. Later in the story, she confesses to Marie on how much she is actually inexperienced in case of sex, and that seems to solidify their ambiguous relationship a bit, but, what do you know, Floriane keeps letting down Marie even after Marie does some favor to her. Although several certain key scenes in the film may unnerve you a bit for good reasons, they are presented with considerable restraint and sensitivity, and I assure you that they look rather earnest with emotional nakedness instead of looking erotic or exploitative.
Sciamma draws the solid performances from her three young female performers. While Pauline Acquart steadily holds the ground with her unadorned acting, Adèle Haenel, who would collaborate with Sciamma again in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), shines as swinging back and forth between her attractive character’s contradicting sides, and Louise Blachère is equally terrific as another crucial part of the story.
Overall, “Water Lilies” may look modest compared to Sciamma’s subsequent achievements, but it is worthwhile to watch because it clearly shows artistic potentials to be fully blossomed during next 13 years. For me and many other South Korean audiences, it was really nice to see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “Tomboy” (2011), and then “Water Lilies” on big screen during the this year, and now I am hoping that “Girlhood” (2014), which has not been released in South Korea yet unlike Sciamma’s other works, will be shown here in South Korea as soon as possible.