Water Lilies: Sexuality, Unrequited Love and the Importance of Friendship

Céline Sciamma’s impressive debut film, Water Lilies, paints a realistic portrait of adolescent lust which tackles subjects of body image, first love and heartbreak, and exploring one's sexuality. Set against the backdrop of a summer in the suburbs of Paris, the film focuses on three teenage girls, Marie (Pauline Acquart), Anne (Louise Blachère) and Floriane (Adèle Haenel), all still figuring out who they are and how to navigate the frustration and confusion that comes with growing up, a facet of life that Sciamma has captured perfectly in this film, as well as her subsequent films.

At the start of Water Lilies, we are introduced to both Marie and Floriane as Marie sits down to observe a synchronized swimming performance and is immediately entranced with the beautiful Floriane, team captain of The Stade Francais Swimmers. It’s as if we can see Marie’s innocence dissipate as she begins to long for Floriane, her sudden interest in the sport as the film goes on is only there as a flimsy façade. The same shift happens to Anne, an outcast of her fellow synchronized swimming teammates, who is hastily changing alone in the pool locker rooms when François, a boy on the water polo team, accidentally walks in on her when she is completely nude. Sciamma does not trivialize these feelings like some films tend to do, especially when it comes to teenage girls. When we are young, everything that happens to us feels like the end of the world, a part of growing up that is usually forgotten as we get older. Instead, Sciamma transports the viewer back to a time when we were the same age as Marie and forces us to recall the crushing emotions of adolescence.

As well, we see Anne’s insecurity with her body as she waits for her teammates to leave the locker rooms before she dares to undress. Marie’s own insecurities come out after the competition, when she is training to join the synchronized swimming team as well, checking the size of her biceps after every arm curl, much to her dismay. Struggles with one’s body image may be a lifelong burden, however, these feelings are especially prominent during adolescence when young people are still exploring their bodies whilst trying to fit into conventional standards of beauty.

After the competition, Marie and Anne bike home together, still best friends like when they arrived, but they leave forever changed by the events that took place to both of them that day. Within the first few moments of the film, Sciamma shows these two young girls develop what is presumably their first big experience with romantic feelings for someone else. Sciamma shows this without making Marie’s sexuality the primary focus of the film. Marie develops a crush on Floriane, but Sciamma does not further comment on either of their sexual preferences, make any judgements, or finite conclusions. Rather, she allows us quietly to observe the inner workings of teenage love with a different lens that does not just lend itself over to a solely heterosexual perspective.

While on their way to a party, Anne comments on how behind schedule she is when it comes to kissing. As Marie and Anne discover their own lust for others, it also seems to make them focus inwards on how they are perceived and how they want to be perceived, something we all face with age. Unfortunately, exploring one’s sexuality does not happen in a vacuum, beneath it all exists the pressure that young people feel to keep up with what their fellow peers are doing, perhaps even before they are ready themselves. This is true even of Floriane, who at first is seen by others to be much more sexually active than the rest of them, an aspect of her that her fellow teammates speak about in an extremely negative light.

At the party, Marie encounters Floriane in the bathroom. She asks Floriane to get her into swim practices so she can observe a request that Floriane does not initially agree to. Instead, Marie finds Floriane to be preoccupied when both her and Anne find Floriane and François kissing each other at the party, obviously involved with one another. Marie and Anne are devastated by this discovery, but neither of them are discouraged by this and continue being persistent. It is this yearning that simultaneously forces a wedge between their friendship as they begin to drift apart as they focus on their separate wants.

Following the party, Marie corners Floriane at the pool yet again and bargains with her: if Floriane gets her into the pool so she can watch practice, she will owe Floriane a favor, which leads Floriane to finally agree. We witness Floriane and her team practice their routine, which on the surface appears effortless as they remain in sync all while smiling, but when Marie gets into the pool, the camera pans beneath the water and we watch as the girls’ legs kick frantically below. This can be seen as symbolic for what it is like to grow up, where appearances can always be deceiving to how one is actually feeling deep down. In the end, we are all just trying to stay afloat.

Marie rushes into the shower after practice, almost as if she is attempting to wash off her desire, snap herself out of it. Afterwards, she overhears one of Floriane’s teammates speaking towards Floriane, accusing her of having sex with many men. Sciamma reminds us of the tight line girls must walk, as well as the double standard they face when it comes to having sex in a patriarchal society: if girls do not have sex, then they are seen as prudes, but if they have too much sex, then they are shamed for doing so. It is always assumed that Floriane is only doing what she is doing with the purpose of attracting men. Throughout the film, while Anne is feeling behind sexually, Floriane, who is rumored to have had multiple partners, is also seen as an outcast. Her teammates call her a “slag,” something she has eventually decided to go along with just to annoy them.

Later on, Marie finds out that the favor she owes Floriane is to pick her up from her house as a cover, so Floriane can freely meet up with François at his place without attracting any suspicion from her family. Floriane asks Marie to wait for her. When she finally comes back to find Marie, Floriane rewards her with an invite to another swim competition since she took so long. While at the competition, we see firsthand the sexual harassment that Floriane deals with from older men as the swim coach forces her to let him massage her.

As Marie and Floriane’s setup continues, Anne continues to lust after François, also going to great lengths just to get him to look her way. Anne, who has been kept in the dark about Marie’s crush on Floriane, gets frustrated with her for no longer coming around as much. Marie lies straight to her face about it when asked. It is not further explored in the film as to why Marie lies to her, but it can be interpreted to be because Marie likes another girl. Later on in the film, when Marie finally admits that she likes someone, Anne asks her who he is, automatically assuming that she is attracted to a boy. This is a telling sign as to why Marie might have not told her in the first place, on top of the fact that Anne clearly does not care for Floriane.

One day, Marie decides that she has had enough of being used for Floriane to sneak around with François, tells her that this is the last time she will be doing this. As Marie rushes off, however, Floriane catches up with her and chooses spending the rest of the day with Marie instead. It is here that Floriane comes clean and admits that she has not slept with François, nor has she slept with anyone like everyone else believes. The next scene shows Marie and Floriane sitting on steps together as Floriane retells events from her past in which she has been sexually harassed by her swim coach, telling Marie that she is lucky that she has never gone through something like that. As they talk, there is a great shot that shows the two of them sitting next to one another on two sides of the steps which are split into two sections, visually creating a line between them. This emphasizes the physical and symbolic space between them, as much as Marie wishes to get closer to Floriane, there is always something in the way.

In the evening, Marie goes back to Floriane’s house when her family is asleep and they share a moment while lying on her bed together just talking. As silence overcomes them, Floriane is the one to reach out and cross that line at last, placing her hand on Marie’s. You can audibly hear Marie’s breathing pick up as she insists on pulling her hand away, but Floriane does not let her. The scene ends with them holding hands, staring at the ceiling.

Floriane sneaks Marie back out as she is taking out her trash, and as Floriane goes back inside her house, Marie raids the trash can outside and steals Floriane’s trash bag. Once in the safety of her own home, Marie rifles through Floriane’s discarded things and finds a half-eaten apple which she proceeds to bite into. In her own way, it is as if Marie is just trying to feel close to Floriane, obviously scared of intimacy but wanting so badly to be intimate. It seems like this was the only way she knew how, whilst dealing with her blossoming feelings for Floriane. When Marie catches Floriane with François in the locker room shower the next day, however, it is a reminder that this is only as close as Marie will ever get to being with Floriane: always from afar.

Floriane yet again confides in Marie, scared to be intimate with François as she does not want him to figure out she is still a virgin. She comes up with a plan to just find an older man at a club in order to get it over with. At the club, Floriane entices Marie to dance with her, yet again getting Marie’s hopes up as Floriane comes close enough to kiss her, but is pulled away by a man. Luckily, Marie saves Floriane from making the mistake of going home with him, subsequently leading Floriane to ask Marie to be her first instead. Floriane just wants to get rid of her virginity, seeing it as the barrier that is keeping her from being with François. This is something Marie does not agree to. She wants more than that with Floriane, she cares for her. This same care is not reciprocated by Floriane, who is ultimately still using Marie for her selfishness, to overcome her own fears and face her own desires.

As both Marie and Anne fail to win the affections of those they like, the tension in their friendship finally comes to a head when they get into a big fight, throwing harsh insults at one another, aimed at hurting the other’s insecurities. This fallout results in Anne boldly confronting François, giving him a necklace and a note, a necklace which we see later on that François has given to Floriane instead. It also leads to Marie agreeing to Floriane’s wish to be her first when she finds out that Floriane will be seeing François that night when her parents are out of town. Perhaps she agrees because Marie begins to understand that this is the only way she will ever be with Floriane, conditionally. Although it may not be what she wants, it may be enough, even if just for a moment.

Marie and Floriane's time together is brief, both clothed, Floriane refusing to look at Marie as it happens. Sciamma shows how fearful they both are: it is not an enjoyable or even a sexual moment they share, but rather an emotional one, exposing both girls’ vulnerability. Floriane sheds a tear, almost allowing herself to break down, and maybe she does, but the scene cuts away before we find out. Like Marie, we are ignorant to how Floriane is really feeling, as the film focuses on Marie’s point of view. However, Floriane’s reaction to Marie reminds us of all the past sexual harassment she has faced, ones we have heard her recall, ones we have actually seen, and some that we will never know about. Her moment with Marie may have been scary because, to her, it could be her first run in with real kindness and consideration.

They fix the bed sheets, hiding the evidence that anything had ever happened between them. After, Marie wants to hold Floriane’s hand, but Floriane rushes her out the second François arrives afterwards. The whole scene captures how messy and uncomfortable most young people’s first encounters with sex is. Marie goes on thinking that that night Floriane and François slept together. We think the same, until we see François show up at Anne’s door and force his way in. Without any further pretense, without even kissing her, François hastily initiates sex with Anne, admitting that Floriane refused to have sex with him. He knows Anne’s affection for him and he continually dismissed it until he wanted to take advantage of it for his own benefit, cruelly using her. After they both had rough evenings, Anne comes to see Marie to tell her that she had sex with François after Floriane would not. She also tells Marie that she still has never been kissed. Marie responds by lightly kissing Anne on the lips, finally giving her her first kiss.

Water Lilies ends with Marie and Anne coming to terms with their crushes at a pool party. François attempts to pull Anne aside and initiate sex with her again, this time professing how he likes her, as a ploy. After the horrible way he had treated her, Anne sees through his charm and triumphantly spits in his mouth instead before leaving him. Marie, on the other hand, makes her move in the girls’ locker room and finally kisses Floriane, an action that she reciprocates, but quickly pulls away. In the end, Floriane leaves Marie there, repressing her own feelings, with nothing but her lip gloss on Marie’s lips as proof of what they had done.

The final scene of the film shows Marie and Anne floating beside one another in the pool, their friendship, though not fully mended, remains through it all. Sciamma has gifted us with an ending that shows us how valuable friendship can be, especially friends that stick around to show us genuine love and understanding when no one else will. They both got their hearts broken, but their worlds did not crumble. They remained strong and finally took themselves out of two unhealthy situations, choosing their own happiness instead of the happiness of those they thought they loved. The ending of Water Lilies should not be seen as sad, but rather one that is filled with hope.

A lot of what happens in Sciamma’s debut film is purposefully left unsaid, yet understood by those who have gone through similar experiences as Marie, Anne and Floriane. Sometimes we are left in the dark about what these characters are actually feeling at any given time, the thoughts and intentions of Floriane most notably missing from the entire film. However, this ambiguity instills beauty into the film, as it mimics real life where the true feelings of others will never be known to us. These young characters are made to be messy and flawed like the rest of us; they do things that hurt others for their own selfishness, they lust after people they know will only end up breaking their hearts.

In this film, being a teenager emerging into young adulthood is not something to be laughed at, rather, Sciamma shows that it is a very painful time. Water Lilies shines a spotlight on young girls discovering their bodies along with the insecurities that this brings. These characters are also shown wanting to explore their sexual desires, where Marie’s attraction toward Floriane brings to the forefront the reality of many young girls whose stories are not told on the big screen. Sciamma recognizes that they are living within a patriarchal, heteronormative culture where people are shamed for exploring who they really are, and continues to undermine this narrative with Water Lilies and all of her subsequent films.

In Water Lilies, synchronized swimming is almost its own background character used as a symbol for how maddening growing up can be. Much like synchronized swimmers, their frantic fight to keep afloat, to keep up their own desperate fronts to appear unbothered, goes unnoticed above the water. On the surface, everyone is smiling wide, as they have practiced their ability to come together in perfect sync, yet another symbol of young people feeling the pressure to remain within the status quo. Perhaps the story in Water Lilies proves that Marie, Anne and Floriane being unable to fit into the norm is a good thing, as everyone else may be pretending just the same.

Words by Alysha Prasad

Water Lilies is streaming on Mubi now!

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