Towards the middle of Girls Can’t Swim, 15-year-old best friends Gwen (Isild Le Besco) and Lise (Karen Alyx) clean a freshly caught fish in Gwen’s kitchen. “It’s gooey,” Lise says. “Like sex,” Gwen responds, and they begin gleefully tussling and throwing fish guts at each other in a display of youthful exuberance and eroticism.
Sex surrounds everything these girls do — even gutting fish. Certainly their friendship is full of unbridled tension. Mercurial, rebellious Gwen is a bundle of nervous and confused energy. One moment she is writing letters to Lise with erotic fervor (“My precious Lise: the days are long without you… No, the nights”), and the next she is fucking her slightly dense boyfriend Fredo (Julien Cottereau) in The Little Fury, her father’s boat. Gwen is quite the wildcard, and neither her parents nor her friends — nor, really, herself — can predict her next move.
Lise, on the other hand, whose family spends summers at the ocean town where Gwen lives, is sullen and defiant. She is obsessed both with keeping Gwen as childlike — i.e., virginal — as Lise herself seems to be, and with releasing her own pent-up sexuality like a fully-grown woman. Although Isild Le Besco as Gwen has received critical accolades, Karen Alyx’s performance is thoroughly moving, brooding and furious as only 15-year-olds can be. And her anger isn’t something that has any obvious cause other than teenage angst, which in turn makes her and her anger all the more believable. It’s not a new observation, but girls don’t follow “logical” motivations.
The film’s lack of narrative logic is less admirable. Girls Can’t Swim moves from scene to scene, from mildly shocking plot twist to mildly shocking plot twist, with all the sense of an adolescent’s moods. It is to director Anne-Sophie Birot’s credit that Girls Can’t Swim never drops quite as far into the lurid depths of teen girl angst as it might have. Each surprising event in the girls’ lives is presented with a cool, matter-of-fact openness rarely encountered in contemporary American cinema. And as a teen flick for the school uniformed, coffeehouse crowd, it might have functioned as a breath of fresh air. Surely more adolescent girls might see themselves as Lise or Gwen than in Rachel Leigh Cook or Sarah Michelle Gellar. It would certainly be healthier, since neither is transformed into the prom queen or exposed as a real bitch. Their problems may be a bit far-fetched, but the characters keep a strong footing in the real world.
Unfortunately, much like last year’s Donnie Darko, another almost-great teen angst movie, Girls Can’t Swim feels less like it’s about teenagers, than it was written by teenagers. As a result, the girls come off as confused in ways no character on a WB show could ever be — a tremendous achievement, indeed. But all of this realism in Gwen and Lise eventually fails. The story suffers “where-to-go-next syndrome,” which is solved by a slightly immature method of shocking (or attempting to shock) the audience. We see so very many shots of 15-year-old breasts (shocking, at least to an American audience), 15-year-olds fucking, and bleak images of death. However, because these images and events seem to emerge from somewhere outside Gwen and Lise’s realism, they feel false, cheap, and, by the end, boring. Perhaps that’s why the film’s darker bits feel so half-baked. The psychosexual implications of Lise and Gwen’s relationship (not the lesbian undertones, which make sense, but the resulting almost-schizo sexual frenzies), Gwen’s insistence on sleeping with as many boys as possible, and Lise and Alain’s (Gwen’s father, played by Pascal Elso) strangely incestuous relationship have little place in relation to the rest of the film. They seem designed to scandalize rather than to illustrate anything about the girls.
When Lise tells Gwen in her most foreboding and ominous voice: “You and me, we’re just alike,” it would seem to fit better in Murderous Maids or Trouble Every Day (both, of course, darker and more metaphorical films overall) than it does here. There’s no hint of metaphor in Girls Can’t Swim, which means lines like this play straightforwardly. It’s hard to swallow that an amazingly believable teen character would suddenly spout intellectual horror-movie asides, especially in an overwhelmingly realistic film. It breaks down the gorgeous normality of Girls Can’t Swim.
Girls Can’t Swim loses more ground with the introduction of its troubling absent/abusive fathers theme. Lise’s father has just died in an accident, and Gwen’s father is an irresponsible drunk, and the film partially blames the girls’ sexual confusion on their lack of solid male role models. It seems that if one lives in a household of dominant women (Gwen’s mother; Lise’s mother and older sisters) one won’t know what sort of womanly role to fulfill. As a result, Gwen’s sexual liberation becomes a cry for help rather than something empowering, and Lise’s lesbian tendencies a symptom of being a confused teen rather than a part of her being. It’s curious (and disappointing) that a film that at first seems so concerned with feminine liberation would resort to such conservative contrivances.
Indeed, Lise reveals that she is “ashamed by my father’s death.” Gwen’s experiences with smoking, boys, and sex have already put the girls at odds, but, most importantly, her father is still alive and adoring his rambunctious daughter. In Girls Can’t Swim a drunken lout of a father is better than no father at all. By still having a father, Gwen betrays some unspoken code of childish equality. The girls’ codependent relationship can’t survive such a shake-up. Most hurtfully, Lise keeps her father’s death a secret, and then takes her friend’s place in Gwen’s father’s eyes. Here, Girls Can’t Swim becomes less a sensitive depiction of teenage girlhood and more a cheering chorus for a traditional two-parent household: if you don’t have a father, you might also lose your friends.
The scenes that lead up to the destruction of the girls’ friendship are heavy-handed and awkward. Unresolved sexual tension translates into white-hot rage far too predictably. According to Girls Can’t Swim, if sexual tension occurs in a friendship it will undoubtedly lead to absolute devastation. While it is a welcome thing to see a film about smart and realistic teenage girls, Gwen and Lise never get the resolution or at least self-awareness that would make their arduous trek worthwhile. This is not to suggest that they learn any pat moral, but a less bleak conclusion or a narrative less focused on attempts to shock might offer hope for girls who see themselves in Gwen and Lise’s positions. Teen angst isn’t the end of the world, but Girls Can’t Swim sure makes it seem that way.