Last year, Céline Sciamma set cinema ablaze worldwide with her revolutionary Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a powerful, unforgettable love story that touched millions of people across the globe and introduced the concept of female gaze into the collective imaginaire. Much more radical and political than it might initially seem, Sciamma’s masterpiece effortlessly tackles issues that are both timeless and timely, from the role of women in a patriarchal and heteronormative society to the regulation of female bodies. However, Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t the first time Sciamma has addressed these themes. Her interest in exploring the complex, multifaceted nature of what it means to be a woman was there from the beginning of her career, much like the focus on the importance of the gaze, this idea of looking and being looked at and what really lies behind the image that’s observed. Her 2007 debut feature film, Water Lilies, or Naissance des Pieuvres (“The Birth of the Octopuses”), is proof of this. The film is a provocative coming-of-age story that explores the rise of female desire, but what truly makes it stand out is the way it breaks down the stereotypes of femininity and examines the relationship between identity and performativity in the formative years of a girl’s life, painting a simple but effective picture of womanhood that is still rarely found in contemporary cinema.
Set in the suburbs outside Paris, in a hot summer marked by boredom, loneliness and competitions of synchronized swimming, Water Lilies depicts the lives and sexual awakening of three teenagers, Marie (Pauline Acquart), her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère), and Floriane (Adèle Haenel), the alluring team captain who becomes the object of Marie’s desire. Marie is attracted to Floriane, who is dating François (Warren Jacquin), who in turn Anne is crushing on. The movie is hardly interested in who ends up with who, but rather the love “quadrangle” is used as a means to explore the girls and their distinct approaches to the pursuit of what they want.
Three different types of femininity, three kinds of girls whose interests and desires diverge and intersect in a seamless flow throughout the movie. Each of the three protagonists embodies a trope: Marie is the quiet, lonely girl; Anne the awkward, overweight best friend; and Floriane the sexy Queen Bee, the girl everybody wants. But this is where Sciamma shows her brilliance: she uses these tropes as a starting point, conscious that the audience will assume certain things about the characters based on previous representations of femininity, to then break these boxes open and diverge from the stereotypes ascribed to girls not just by cinema but by society at large. Marie is quiet by choice, her loneliness doesn’t bother her, and when she does talk, she does so in a brash, confrontational way you wouldn’t expect. Anne is built as the embarrassing girl who has no place in society, to be reviled or ridiculed for her exaggerated attempts at drawing the attention of the guy she likes. And yet, out of the three, she is the one who in the end takes a stand for herself, refusing to be used by François and rejecting the role of “less than”. And then there’s Floriane, who more than anyone embodies this tension between the real self and the constructed self. It’s not as easy as to simply say that she is the opposite of what people make her out to be – they think she is a “slut” who sleeps with every guy around her when actually she is still a virgin – but in fact, Floriane herself seems unable to see herself exist as anything other than the persona created for her by and for society. When Marie questions her about why she feels obligated to have sex and maintain the façade even though she doesn’t want to, Floriane sharply retorts that it’s “apparently written on her face” that she has to do it. People around her impose an identity on her because of something out of her control – the way she looks – and that identity becomes as inextricable for those who cast assumptions on her as it is for Floriane herself who endures them, permanently attached to her face and body.
At the beginning of Water Lilies, Floriane is introduced to Marie and the audience as she performs a spectacular synchronized swimming choreography with her team, especially in comparison to the scrambling endeavors of the children’s team before them. Floriane draws all eyes to her, she elegantly rises up from the water higher than anyone with no visible effort. But there are insidious mechanisms at work, externally and internally, to keep that image of beauty and effortlessness in place, and the rest of the movie brings them to the surface in all their variations. Each of the three protagonists is confronted in a different way with this struggle of imposition and expectation. Marie is the one who cares the least but relinquishes a lot of her autonomy in her pursuit of Floriane; Anne is the one whose efforts are the most visible and desperate and who will go to any length to be accepted, but who by the end puts herself first; and Floriane is the one who has perfected that image but can no longer draw away from it despite the suffering and loneliness that lies underneath. A woman’s identity can become a performance that is chosen not by us but for us, and Sciamma examines this conflict with impressive candor, with no lectures or exposition.
That isn’t to say that the movie isn’t manifest in the way it tackles identity, gender and body politics. Sciamma’s approach is less polished than in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, more intuitive maybe than consciously crafted, but just as radical in that regard, especially for a movie made and released in the pre-MeToo era. Even though never explicitly stated, there is an evident intention to address the root cause behind this ingrained need in girls to perform a role, that is, the entrenched influence of the patriarchal structures society is built upon. Men are hardly present in the movie, but the weight of their impact is felt throughout, affecting the way girls shape their identities and their relationship with their bodies. It’s impressive how Sciamma manages to depict the intricacy of these processes without ever resorting to downright spelling out the Evils of Patriarchy. The message is conveyed through the girls’ experiences, layered and personal rather than stating universal truths, and therefore much more realistic and effective in examining the power men exert on women’s bodies, and how that grip goes beyond the physical but can be absorbed and internalized as well. There is a scene in which the girls from the swimming team submit to a thorough check-up of their armpit and pubic hair. When one of the girls fails to meet the required standards because she “didn’t have the time” to shave properly, the coach reproaches her by asking her if she is going to use the same excuse with her husband. The fact that this kind of rebuke comes from another woman is noteworthy, a reminder that patriarchal conventions are still so pervasive in modern society that women themselves can become an active part in enforcing those rules and expectations they are subjected to since a young age. A girl’s body is not her own, she must adhere to specific standards to become worthy of consumption.
Marie might seem mostly unshackled from this standpoint compared to the other two protagonists, but men are still the hindrance to getting what she wants – Floriane – and she herself in a way wants to consume Floriane, albeit with no malicious intent. Anne is the one whose body is not wanted by men – and not even by herself because she feels the weight of that external judgement – but who does everything for one of them, even allowing herself to be physically used by François. And Floriane is the absolute body. It’s not a coincidence that she is not present during the inspection scene. She is the archetype of the desired body, she doesn’t need to be reminded to make herself shiny and attractive, she already is. More importantly, she isn’t there during the inspection because a male swimming instructor is forcing her to get a massage from him; she isn’t there because she is being sexually harassed. She is her body and that body is craved, envied, consumed, whether she wants it or not. The person behind it, behind the face that has caused an indelible persona to be attached to her, remains out of reach. This is reflected in the film language, too: out of the three girls, Floriane is the only character whose point-of-view the audience never enters. We can only see her through the other characters’ eyes, through Marie’s desire, Anne’s jealousy, the other girls’ disdain. Even in the moments of deepest intimacy like when she reveals to Marie her history of sexual harassment or when Marie takes her virginity, the exploration of her character remains surface-level, purposefully so. We only have access to the image because Floriane has been made into an image.
Simone de Beauvoir famously said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. Water Lilies presents the complexity of a girl’s journey in finding her own identity with rare nuance, depicting the work-in-progress rather than the finished product, because teenage-hood is more than anything a phase of transformation, especially in a girl’s life. There is no definitive answer as to who Marie, Anne and Floriane are going to become, only an exploration of who they are now and what makes them the way they are. As Marie and Anne jump into the water and let go of the desired images they had dedicated themselves to, the audience is left with the feeling that they are watching a cleansing and awakening of sorts, and that the two girls are going to move forward and eventually find their authentic selves. The final shot of Floriane, dancing alone at the party, speaks of a different fate. With her, the image prevails, the freedom she evokes is artificial, like the blue light she is bathed in. She is the Alpha Girl with no pack to lead, relegated to true loneliness by virtue of being too wanted and not wanted at all. She is the femme fatale, the deadly woman, but she is deadly only to herself, because her performative self and her real self cannot co-exist, and in the end, the former suffocates the latter, like the coils of the octopus from the original French title. Is it possible to find your true self when who you are has already been decided by others? Marie and Anne can float peacefully after plunging into the water. Floriane never sinks, but underneath the surface, she kicks wildly to stay afloat.