One of the most poignant components of cinema is its ability to reach out, take an issue that you thought was exclusive to you alone, and demonstrate that you, as a viewer, are far from alone. Céline Sciamma’s debut feature Water Lilies provides a stunning example of this phenomenon. The film traces the sexual and personal development of three adolescent girls, focusing on the attraction between a pair of young swimmers as they navigate the emotional minefield of pubescent lesbianism. The rarity of Water Lilies is rooted in Sciamma’s ability to portray sexual attraction in a manner which hits so close to the lived truth; through sensitive exploration of Marie, Anne and Floriane’s attractions, Sciamma unites an audience to look back at what they once were.
The delicacy of Sciamma’s hand, amplified by the minimalistic nature of her filmmaking, allows us to draw our own conclusions as we are invited into the inner workings of teenage life. Water Lilies’ realism is only more impressive considering the subject choice; Sciamma affords her teenage characters a respect that would not be found in the work of a lesser filmmaker. Through the eyes of these characters, we may reflect on an element of life that feels distant, yet altogether inseparable from who we are.
The film reckons with straight and lesbian attraction alike, but it is the relationship between Marie and Floriane which sets Water Lilies apart from its competitors. As women who are attracted to women, we are told from a young age that our attractions deviate from an idealised heterosexual norm. Water Lilies disregards this conditioning, focusing instead on the cinematic beauty of blossoming lesbian sexuality. Here Sciamma delivers the coming-of-age film that we were denied in our youth, an intimate observation of newly-awoken feelings in all their awkward glory. For once, we are not the object of a male gaze, but the subject of a watchful eye that seeks to understand and exemplify our natural desires. We can all identify with that fearful girl fighting her attractions in the swimming pool changing rooms — and Water Lilies seeks to reassure us all that we need not fight anymore.
Megan Christopher is a freelance film journalist based in Manchester. Her particular filmic interest lies in portrayals of the LGBTQ+ community, mental health and women in general. She is the co-founder of Much Ado About Cinema, and has also written for sites such as Girls on Tops and Reel Honey.