Water Lilies15, Curzon Soho and key cities
I did consider seeing this week’s big high-concept film, Disney’s Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert in 3D — but just couldn’t face it. Based on a popular American pre-teen TV series, I felt I couldn’t be certain I’d like Hannah in any dimension. So, instead, I opted for the French film, Water Lilies, which is not big or high-concept and not in 3D. As it is, in French films you’re lucky to get a boy on a bicycle. It may even be just the boy and you’ll have to wait for the sequel to get the bicycle. There are no boys on bicycles in Water Lilies, as it happens, but it is still very much a boy-and-bicycle film, if you get what I mean, which you will unless you are slow. (Don’t worry if you are slow. I am quite slow myself and lead a reasonably normal life.)
This is a first film from writer-director Céline Sciamma and it is about being a girl, being 15, and the awakening of sexual desire, always a painful, difficult, and complex business, at least at the cinema. I think mine started waking up on the Tuesday and we were done by Thursday, but that’s by the by. It’s set in a banal, new-looking Parisian suburb against the backdrop of the municipal pool and the local synchronised-swimming squad. Synchronised swimming — or ‘designer drowning’, as it is known in our house — is daft, but also strangely spooky and compelling: all that furious paddling below — all that turmoil — while straining to look serene and polished on top. Maybe synchronised swimming, here, is a metaphor for the teenage state generally. Probably, it is.
Anyway, the focus is exclusively on three girls: Marie (Pauline Acquart), our observer, who is reserved, intense, boyish; Floriane (Adele Haenel), star of the squad and a shapely dazzler; and Anne (Louise Blachère), Marie’s devoted, plain, chubby, sometimes sweat-stained best friend. Anne is the girl you have to go around with when none of the other girls will have anything to do with you and whom you drop, pronto, the moment the situation changes. ‘Go away, you are a burden,’ Marie tells Anne at one point. This is set at the age when teenage girls and their shifting friendships are at their most shockingly cruel. Thinking about it, it’s a good job being a teenage girl happens when it does, otherwise none of us would survive it.
Each girl is grappling with desire in her own particular, adolescent, psychosexual way. By Jove, yes. Anne desires Floriane’s boyfriend, François, hunky star of the water-polo team. Marie’s desire kicks in as she becomes increasingly besotted with Floriane. Floriane is desired by everyone but is being desired everything it is cracked up to be? What is her game, anyway? This is not a happy film. There are a few happy moments — the girls playing some sort of game that involves storing water in their cheeks; Anne’s unique shoplifting method — but that is about it. The rest is claustrophobic and often painfully uncomfortable to watch. Anne actually gets what she wants, but her dream is brutally realised. Marie is unsettling in and of herself, being so intensely watchful and reserved. Plus, there is one extremely disconcerting scene of girl-on-girl sexual experimentation. How one longs, at times, for a few silly boys on bicycles to break it all up. On the other hand, if you are making a film about painful and uncomfortable feelings, perhaps it is only right that it is painful and uncomfortable to sit through, too.
This is a brave film, and admirable for that. It’s brave because it’s sparse and stripped to the bone; because it’s about teenage girls but it doesn’t hide behind cell phones and make-up and fashion and annoying parents who just don’t understand. It is no Mean Girls. However, that said, with its naturalistic, often aimless conversation it is, at times, almost as excruciatingly slow as it is pent-up. GET ON WITH IT, GIRLS! MY SEXUAL DESIRE STARTED WAKING UP ON THE TUESDAY AND WE WERE DONE BY THURSDAY! Still, I’m guessing that the girls in this are considerably more interesting and dimensional than Hannah Montana, with or without the special specs.