Monday, October 20, 2008

The Passion & the Prurience: Water Lilies (2007)

by Erich Kuersten of Acidemic


Art house cinema has always relished depicting roundelays of unrequited love ala the novels of Carson McCullers or the films of Wong Kar Wai. With their low budget focus on a handful of faces emoting before desolate landscapes, indie film has become synonymous with the emptiness and tortuously prolonged hook-ups (it saves money on extras). 2007's Naissance des pieuvres (English title: Water Lilies) uses this undernourished mis en scene to its benefit, centering the action around "synchronized water ballet" swim meets at the pool, where the unrequited love daisy chain moves freely without the presence of a single visible adult, and boys way to the side. In other words, there's lots of beautiful faces here, lips unmarked by kisses, as ze French like it.

Marie (Pauline Aquart), the beautifully soft-butch Gallic protagonist, looks like a young thinner Scarlett Johansson and acts like Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye. The probably straight Floriane (Adele Haenel) is the object of Marie's McCullersy fetishizing: she rummages through Floraine's trash, eating her discarded apples, and of course never misses a swim meet, all the while afraid to bust a move when Floriane is clearly sending signals, but maybe her signals are too clear, as in manipulation alert, and maybe we're over-thinking! God why are we so stupid! (she doesn't say that, but you feel it in your aching unresolved loves still waiting at home in the closet bones). At any rate, Marie chokes in over-proximity to her desire (the Lacanian objet petit a!)and at the same time, our prurient interests are kept dangling by fade outs and oblique references. Meanwhile, Marie's still childish--vaguely Shelly Wintersish--buddy (Louise Blachere) is left in the dust.

Like Reflections in a Golden Eye and its ilk, a lot is left unsaid here, but unspoken aches and pangs come across just fine, in the way Marie freezes up when Floriane's pouty lips come centimetres close to kissing her, only to whirl away in favor of some "normie" lothario hopped up on his own juices. We long for Marie to bust a move on Floriane, but we know from pained recollections how hard that is at that age, no matter how much like Scarlett Johansson you may look, it's hard even if you're straight. Zoot alors!

Directed Celine Sciamma brings an Eric Rohmer touch to the film; all the playful interaction and subtle flirting is allowed to take its time and when the romantic kisses finally come--if they ever do--you can feel yourself swoon after all that anticipation. But the brilliance here is how Sciamma ricochets her McCullers ideas off our prurient expectations, capitalizing on our unfulfilled desire as viewers--the sublimated guilt at our rapture over underage nymphettes--and commandeering it towards an epiphany-style realization that a "happy ending" is an oxymoron; and no necklace, declaration or physical act can adequately quench what by definition cannot survive quenching.


Of course there's always been a rich vein of "unfulfillability" in onscreen lesbian relationships over the years, High Art and Heavenly Creatures and Gasoline come to mind, as does Henry & June. Why is it lesbians who get such a bad break in the movies? . Anytime a lesbian couple makes it out of a film in one piece, I want to stand up and cheer! Perhaps just as the "sparse emptiness" of the landscapes in indie films is both symbolic of alienation AND cost-effective, so this ephemeral sapphistry is both a meditation on the pains of growing up AND so it can play the American south. I can imagine my mom for example watching this film and never making the connection these girls were gay. Meanwhile, if you told me they weren't, I'd have to punch you. Go figure the mysteries of life, and put this on your list. And for another great saga of French girls in "dangerous" friendship, see Kim Morgan's review of the sweet and sacreligious Don't Deliver Us From Evil. And might I also recommend Poison Ivy? And My Summer of Love? Mon dieu! Maybe the core of every old straight male is a young French lesbian trying to get out. C'est la morte!

9 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

Thanks for the reminder Erich. I've had this movie on my netlix queue from when i first heard of it. haven't yet watched.

have any of you seen yet?

aliceinreallife said...

Okay, Nathaniel, I saw this on IMDb, and I HAD TO share it with you.

The Banjo Man is played by Billy Redden who played the boy playing the banjo in Deliverance (1972).

In Big Fish.

AHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Erich Kuersten said...

goddamn it, somehow an older version of this post came through, after all this beautiful tweaking I did!

NATHANIEL R said...

wait. that's weird. the post IS different now than when i first read it. craziness!

James Hansen said...

This was at New Directors/New Films this year (or last) but it never got a theatrical release in NYC. It looked interesting to me and this review definitely makes me want to bump it up the queue. Nice review, Erich!

Erich Kuersten said...

Thanks James! Now, I fixed it and made it even longer... zoot alors!

Alison Flynn said...

I saw this at a New Directors' series at the MOMA in Spring of this year. It played at The Landmark Sunshine on Houston St. for a bit, but wasn't in theaters long.

A wonderful movie and a terrific debut. Sciamma was there and spoke to the audience afterward.

Janice said...

//Why is it lesbians who get such a bad break in the movies? . Anytime a lesbian couple makes it out of a film in one piece, I want to stand up and cheer! Perhaps just as the "sparse emptiness" of the landscapes in indie films is both symbolic of alienation AND cost-effective, so this ephemeral sapphistry is both a meditation on the pains of growing up AND so it can play the American south. I can imagine my mom for example watching this film and never making the connection these girls were gay. Meanwhile, if you told me they weren't, I'd have to punch you.//

Amen to that Erich, and thank you for saying so - and for the beautiful review. I will add it to my list.

I think what you said explains (partly) why many of my lesbian friends (and I am one so no, I'm not objectifiying here, just so it's clear) grab onto a really bad film like "Claire of the Moon" because it's made for and by a lesbian, targeted at lesbians and...has a happy ending? I think. I couldn't sit through it (stilted dialogue and very limited camera movement in a given scene, like the tripod was bolted to the floor). There are a lot of "lesbian" themed films but the ones that are "positive" are terribly second rate. Meanwhile, I'm just waiting for characters who happen to be lesbian to be part of the cinematic landscape, just like blacks and...oh, wait. Never mind.

Erich Kuersten said...

Thanks for you nice comments, Janice! I agree about the limited "good lesbian film" choices. The ending of BOUND in particular is a nice surprise to that end, really played on our expectations that things would not end well. Meanwhile there's "lifetimey" schmaltz like the L Word which actually seems to subtextually promote a conservative agenda (though I only watched the first 10 minutes of the first episode before I had to go turn it off). For my money the best onscreen lesbian relationship is still XENA and Gabrielle.