Summer in a new suburb outside Paris. Nothing to do but look at the ceiling. Marie, Anne and Floriane are 15. Their paths cross in the corridors at the local swimming pool, where love and desire make a sudden, dramatic appearance.
Water Lillies debuted May 17 at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, setting off a buzz that’s already crossing the Atlantic. The film is about the burgeoning sexuality of 15-year-old girls, set against the backdrop of synchronized swimming. The director, 27-year-old Céline Sciamma, had never even directed a short before turning the screenplay she wrote for school into a feature film. And while Water Lillies is already getting the kind of reviews independent filmmakers dream of, Sciamma is the one making news.
“Hey, I’m gay,” says Sciamma, sitting outdoors at Cannes with a pack of Benson & Hedges pack close at hand. “I don’t know if I should say this,” she says laughing, then pauses before deciding to go on. “I always… resent the people who are gay, who could say it, and they don’t. So I’m not going to do that. I have to be logical.”
Although Cannes is the height of sophistication, the question of sexuality still goes largely unasked. In her well-spoken English Sciamma describes how the media would dance around the issue, even after she had made a film in which a teenage girl explores her sexuality.
Sciamma sees herself primarily as a writer but clearly shows a knack for filmmaking. She shows particular deftness in the scene where our awkward heroine relieves her friend’s virginity as “a favor.” Sciamma crafts a tense and emotional moment as one girl feels intense pangs of love while the other simply endures the pain. It ends with a single, breathtaking tear.
“We did [that scene] in the beginning of the shooting, in the second week,” recalls Sciamma. “But we worked together for a month before shooting. It wasn’t rehearsal, I guess. It was more getting them to be physical together, working on the sensuality. So when they got to the set they were really comfortable with one another.
“It was such a big deal for both of the actresses. They’re 15 years old; it’s really awkward to do this. But they were really committed to the film. The tear just appeared.”
Water Lilies is a big deal for the single Sciamma. “Making a movie makes you single,” she quips with a laugh about her two-year journey. But she is happy to have scored with a story that places young women front and center; adults are virtually nonexistent in the film, and boys are kept almost entirely in the background.
“So whoever you are, you have to identify with a 15-year-old girl,” she explains. “I wanted everybody in the audience — when [the two girls] kiss—I wanted everybody to want the kiss to happen.
“And also I wanted to contribute. There’s really a lack of homosexual representation [in the movies], and I’ve suffered from this. Stories can really fulfill the lack of love or experience you can have when you’re young.”
Starring: Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachère, Adele Haenel, Warren Jacquin, Christelle Baras
Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Screenplay by: Céline Sciamma
Release Date: April 4th, 2008
MPAA Rating: None.
Box Office: $85,440 (US total)
Studio: Balthazar Productions