I’m reminded of that old joke that Woody Allen is reminded of in Annie Hall. You know the one: two old biddies are dining up at a Catskill mountain resort. The one turns to the other and says “The food here is terrible”, to which the other famously replies “I know—and such small portions”.
Well, that’s how I feel about Water Lilies, a disagreeable little French film which is probably too short to truly offend, but just terrible enough in the time allotted to it to fascinate with its awfulness. Is it so wrong to want the awfulness to go on a bit longer, just to see how awful it can get? Water Lilies is a bad film, to be sure, but never bad enough for long enough to be memorable, which would have been its only saving grace.
Young 15-year-old Marie spends her summer days skulking about the local pool, watching her doughy friend Anne’s synchronized swim team practice. One day, a swimmer on another team catches Marie’s eye. Radiating coquettish confidence, Floriane is everything Marie isn’t—beautiful, free spirited, and (apparently) sexually mature. Marie falls under her sway, and somehow manages to wriggle herself inside the other’s orbit.
They begin what’s supposed to be a subterraneanly, sexually charged relationship of sorts that mostly involves Floriane using Marie as a chaperone so she (Floriane) can hook up with boys, and then teasing Marie and inadvertently leading her on with suggestive looks. Meanwhile, Anne lurks out on the periphery, trying to seduce the same boys as Floriane, while also becoming increasingly jealous of Marie and Floriane’s intense relationship.
Except, there’s nothing intense about it at all, this relationship —no spark, no hysterics or histrionics, no supercharged hormones or emotional breakdowns, nothing that even bares a hint of recognizable teenage (or just plain human) behavior or feelings at all. This is supposed to be the age of overheated excess, of flaming desire and first love – and all the girls can muster are blank faced stares and dispassionate mechanical fumbling.
I don’t think any character cracked even a smile, not once, and no one ever broke down in tears, nor screamed and screeched. It’s all so eerily quiet, and it’s all so anemic, the entire film drained of even the hint of vibrancy, of noise, of urgency, of life.
I don’t know – perhaps there was a reason for this joyless, clinical approach, perhaps there’s some greater reason for this blankness. But I can’t figure it. Water Lilies is obviously supposed to be something about teenage sexual identity and exploration, about angst and confusion and self-discovery, about fumbling and screwing up (and, presumably, screwing). But there’s never a hint of this.
But maybe I was looking in the wrong place. Perhaps the film is too subtle for me. Perhaps it’s about how everything is supposed to be submerged, you know, lurking beneath, blurry, like it’s… underwater (yeah, that’s it!), which has to be the only explanation I can figure for setting this thing around swimming pools. (And on that note, why synchronized swimming? Another point that seems inexplicable, unless it’s supposed to imply some sort of ironic counterpoint of grace to all the graceless “action”. But I don’t think that’s the case)
At 83 minutes, Water Lilies is ultimately more chore than bore to sit through - just when it hits full stride in tedium it is cut suddenly, and mercifully, short (the only pleasant surprise it has to offer). Which I guess, begs the question, if it’s all so insubstantial to begin with, how (and why) did it even get made?
What does first time director Celine Sciamma have to say that hasn’t been said before, and better? Where is the necessity in all this, when there are so many better alternatives out there much more deserving of our attention, films that mine similar territory that have gone underseen and/or underappreciated?
Some critics of Water Lilies have drawn comparisons between it and Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, which, maybe I can see a bit (both films are soporifically dull), but that’s not the film I’m thinking of. So, while I’m usually loathe to do this, I just want to take this space here, since I’ve really run out of constructive things to say about Water Lilies, to recommend in its stead Swedish director Lukas Moodyyson’s iridescent Show Me Love, a film overflowing with the exuberance of young love, sexual identity and confusion that gets it all absolutely right. It’s the film that Water Lilies might have been if it had remembered what it’s like to be young, if it had some heart, some heat, and some life.
Water Lilies comes to DVD after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Stateside theater release with no real substantial extra features to speak of, just some screen tests by the cast and some deleted scenes which add nothing to the film, and make you further realize that the film had nothing in the tank to begin with.