Water Lilies

A disagreeable little French film which is too short to truly offend, but just terrible enough to fascinate with its awfulness.

Water Lilies

Director: #233;line Sciamma
Cast: Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachere, Adele Haenel, Warren Jacquin
Distributor: Koch Lorber
MPAA rating: Unrated
Display Artist: Céline Sciamma
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2008-09-02

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.