Céline Sciamma on ‘Water Lilies’
Unfolding in an anonymous Parisian suburb over the course of a languid summer, Céline Sciamma’s debut Water Lilies is a coming-of-age tale set within the world of synchronised swimming that captures the pleasure and pain as three 15-year-old girls explore their burgeoning sexuality.
Marie (Pauline Acquart) hopes to join her local synchronised swimming team, an ambition fuelled by her sexual attraction to popular captain Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Marie finds herself becoming an accomplice in a series of uncomfortable assignations with Floriane’s boyfriend François, while her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère) also has François in her sights. As friendships fray, Sciamma sets the stage for a series of power struggles.
Tender but with flashes of humour, the film explores emotional territory previously mined by Catherine Breillat and Lucrecia Martel, while the spirit of Esther Williams lingers in the distinctive underwater scenes. Bold, visually assured and knowingly kitsch, this is a promising and impressive debut.
What is it about synchronised swimming that captured your attention?
When I was 15 I attended a synchronised swimming exhibition and I thought I’d missed my vocation! Those girls were so accomplished, so feminine when I was still so childish in appearance, part of a team when I felt alone. This absurd memory struck me as a great example of the confusion you feel at that time of life, when you often mistake your desires. Plus I think that synchronised swimming says a lot about the female condition. Synchronised swimmers are soldiers who look like dolls: on the surface they have to pretend they don’t suffer, whereas underneath they struggle painfully. It reveals a lot about the job of being a girl.
Was the depiction of how tough it is to be a girl one of your main aims?
Even before I had the storyline I knew I wanted to depict what I call ‘the difficult job of being a girl’. Cinema has been talking about women for a century now but most of the talking has been done by men. I wanted to go against the undying male fascination for teenage girls in cotton underwear. Water Lilies goes into girls’ locker rooms not to fantasise but to portray the reality.
The film is especially impressive in its portrait of the awakening of Marie’s desires for Floriane.
I like to think of homosexuality not as a subject but as a journey. So I wanted to observe a very small moment: the awakening of desire and the journey of that desire from the moment it is born in the stomach until it travels to Marie’s consciousness. I wanted to capture the birth of desire rather than its affirmation, so Water Lilies ends where most films on homosexual desire begin.
Why did you avoid placing the film in a specific time?
I wanted to portray universal feelings and sensations rather than doing a generational movie that would be an inside view of the teenagers of 2006 or look nostalgically at the past.
Equally striking is the lack of an adult perspective.
I started writing scenes with the characters’ parents in them but I quickly found it boring. The complex relationship between teenagers and adults lies at the heart of the French tradition of teen movies from Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups to Pialat’s A nos amours. But I decided I’d rather not talk about it at all and so I dispensed with it after the first draft. I also wanted everyone to identify with a 15-year-old girl and adult characters would have allowed them to find refuge elsewhere.
Interview by Jason Wood, Sight & Sound, April 2008
Timeline: Céline Sciamma
Céline Sciamma is born in Pontoise, a suburb of Paris, in 1978.
She studies French literature before enrolling at Paris’s famous film school La Fémis.
While at La Fémis, she writes her first script, Water Lilies, a coming-of-age tale about a 15-year-old girl and her growing attraction to the star of the local synchronised swimming team. She is encouraged by filmmaker Xavier Beauvois to direct it.
Water Lilies (2007), starring Adèle Haenel, premieres in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
She directs Pauline (2010) for a government-sponsored collection of five short films dealing with homophobia.
Sciamma’s second feature, Tomboy (2011), focuses on a ten-year-old girl who moves to a new neighbourhood and presents herself as a boy. Sciamma writes and shoots the film on a small budget in just three months.
The last film in her coming-of-age trilogy, Girlhood (2014), premieres at Cannes. ‘Water Lilies was about the beginning of teenage-hood; Tomboy, the end of childhood; and this one is about the end of teenage-hood,’ she told Sight & Sound about her banlieue-set story about a black teenager who joins an all-girl gang. Sciamma shoots it in CinemaScope, finding her cast on the streets.
Sciamma writes scripts for André Téchiné’s Being 17 (2016) and the French/Swiss stop-motion animation My Life as a Courgette (2016).
In 2015 she becomes co-president of the French Society of Film Directors, and in 2018 is one of the organisers of the women’s protest against inequality at the Cannes Film Festival.
Her fourth feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire wins the Best Screenplay award at Cannes 2019.
Sciamma’s fifth feature Petite maman premieres at the Berlin Film Festival in March 2021.
Sight & Sound, March 2020
WATER LILIES (NAISSANCE DES PIEUVRES)
Un film de: Céline Sciamma
©/Presented by: Productions Balthazar
With the participation of: Centre national de la cinématographie, Canal+
With the support of: Région Île de France
With the participation of: ARTE, Cofinova 3
Distributor: Haut et Court Distribution
Produced by: Bénédicte Couvreur, Jérôme Dopffer
Unit Production Manager: Maud Quiffet
Unit Manager: Bachir Sareh
Pre-/Post-production: Emmanuel Barraux, Virginie Bonneau, Juliette Grandmont, Mani Mortazavi, Emilie Tisné
Administration/Financial Controller: Cabinet Roy
Administration: Rémi Roy
1st Assistant Director: Delphine Daull
2nd Assistant Director: Jérémie Steib
Script Supervisor: Roselyne Bellec
Casting: Christel Baras, Laure Cochener
Screenplay: Céline Sciamma
Director of Photography: Crystel Fournier
2nd Unit Director of Photography: Richard Mercier
Underwater Photographer: Philippe Venne
1st Assistant Camera: François Chevreau
2nd Unit Assistant Camera: Barbara Visser
Underwater Assistant Camera: Jacques Ballard
2nd Assistant Camera: Stéphane Raymond
Key Grip: Jérémie Leloup
Gaffer: Muriel Olivier
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Assistant Editors: Jean-Christophe Bouzy, Carole Borne
Art Director: Gwendal Bescond
1st Assistant Art Director: Pascal Leguellec
Set Decorator: Géraldine Laferté
Properties: Olivia Talan
Construction Manager: Thierry Carini
Costumes: Marine Chauveau
Wardrobe: Dorine Simon
Key Make-up: Marie Luiset
Opening Titles: Eric Delmotte
Closing Titles: Ercidan
Colour Timer: Christophe Bousquet
Stock: Kodak Motion Picture Film
Original Music: Para One
Music Recordings: Para One, Vincent Verdoux
Sound Recording: Pierre André
Boom Operator: Franck Duval
Sound Mixer: Daniel Sobrino
Sound Editor: Pierre André
Recordist ADR: Gildas Mercier
Foley Artist: Bertrand Boudaud
Foley Recordist: Gildas Mercier
Subtitles: L.V.T. (Paris)
Technical Adviser: Delphine Gleize
Synchronised Swimming Coach: Andréa Conti
Dialogue Coach: Véronique Ruggia
Unit Publicists: François Hassan Guerrar, Julie Tardit
Pauline Acquart (Marie)
Louise Blachère (Anne)
Adèle Haenel (Floriane)
Warren Jacquin (François)
Christel Baras (inspector)
Marie Gili Pierre (cashier)
Alice de Lencquesaing (cloakroom girl)
Claire Pierrat (cloakroom girl 2)
Barbara Renard (Natacha)
Esther Sironneau (shop assistant)
Jérémie Steib (masseur)
Yvonne Villemaire (neighbour)
Christophe Vandevelde (nightclub guy)
SEEN & HEARD: DARING FEMALE COMING-OF-AGE FILMS
Tue 1 Mar 20:40; Sun 13 Mar 20:45
Wed 2 Mar 20:50; Tue 15 Mar 20:50
Sat 5 Mar 17:45; Tue 8 Mar 21:00
37 Seconds (37 sekanzu)
Sat 5 Mar 20:30; Sat 12 Mar 20:45
Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres)
Sun 6 Mar 18:45; Mon 14 Mar 20:50
Tue 8 Mar 18:10 (+ intro by Hannah Strong, Little White Lies Digital Editor and author of Sofia Coppola: Forever Young); Sun 13 Mar 18:00
Fri 11 Mar 20:50; Mon 14 Mar 18:10
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