“Water Lilies” Is a Memory of Gay Adolescence

In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.


The first time Marie sees her, Floriane is wearing a nose clip. Her hair is pulled back. She has on a one-piece swimsuit — orange, red, black, sparkly. She moves with the same violent grace as the other girls. She fits in like Marie never could. And yet she doesn’t. She stands out. She’s better. In a moment, she becomes Marie’s entire world.

I was 15 the first time I watched Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies. The same age as Marie. I am now 27. The same age as Céline Sciamma when she made the film. At 15, I was shy, confused, and eager for my first kiss. At 27, I am outgoing, less confused, and eager for my next one. I have doubled the age of my earliest adolescence and yet I think about the era with a pathetic urgency. I recount stories to friends, I process in therapy, I write personal essays, I write movies. This doesn’t make me unique. Queer people are obsessed with our teenagehoods. We may be granted a second adolescence, but it does nothing to erase the first. It’s impossible to forget a feeling like sitting on the bleachers watching Floriane swim. It’s impossible to forget the drowning.

Water Lilies turns our tropes into a poem. Marie is an awkward closeted lesbian whose only friend, Anne, is an awkward heterosexual. They’re both desperate for their first kiss — Anne with cute swim boy François and Marie with François’ aloof girlfriend Floriane. Anne towers over the other girls while Marie disappears. Anne is insecure about her bigger body while Marie wants to prove she’s not the child she so obviously still is. And then there’s Floriane.

Floriane is a character we know well from lesbian coming-of-age movies and our lives. She can make you feel like the most important person in the world with only a look. But then you feel your skin peeling off and your organs draining every time she runs off with a boy. It seems like she likes you — you almost kissed once maybe? — but then it seems like she doesn’t… but then it seems like she does! Boundaries are put in place and vanish and are rebuilt again. The whole time you are dying.

But the greatest strength of Sciamma’s film is that Sciamma herself is the point of view — not Marie. Each girl is written with depth and affection and performed with sensitivity from Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachère, and especially Adèle Haenel. Floriane is not presented as the normal straight girl nightmare we’re used to seeing and reminiscing about with a pained chuckle. Floriane is just another queer girl struggling in her own way. Years give Sciamma and us that perspective. In one scene, Floriane recounts her lifetime of harassment and abuse to Marie. She has been objectified and taught to leave her self-worth to the judgements of men. Marie is her escape — and every time Marie literally helps her escape an encounter with a man her gratitude is genuine. But that doesn’t mean she can have the same desires as Marie. Not yet. To ignore the role society has given her would be to lose her false sense of power. 15-year-old Marie cannot make up for that loss.

But, of course, Marie doesn’t understand that. Marie feels tortured and in love. She follows Floriane around and does whatever she asks. She feels the wrongness of the dynamic, and occasionally sticks up for herself. But then she feels the rightness of the dynamic — their connection — and she returns and says yes and keeps hurting.

Water Lilies is a movie about teenage girls having sex they don’t want to have, because they so badly want to kiss. The brutality of Anne’s sex scene — a boy using her body with no regard for her humanity — is matched by the “sex” between Marie and Floriane. The spark that’s felt in all their interactions disappears in a sterile act neither are ready for that’s all in service of that same cruel boy. They do not kiss. Floriane cries due to pain and so much more. There’s an intense contrast with the later moment when they do finally kiss. The sex scene is violence born out of tender affection — the kiss is a beautiful relief surrounded by harsh reality.

The choices these girls make are frustrating in their obvious wrongness. Their cruelty toward one another feels so unnecessary. They’re kids. They’re girls. They’re girls navigating patriarchy with no one to hurt but each other. It doesn’t make it easier to watch, but it does feel true. They act the way we acted until we learned there were other ways.

Sciamma’s latest film Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a memory of love. The story begins after the film’s central romance has long past and a painting brings us back into the artist’s memory. And while the structure of Water Lilies suggests a more straight forward narrative, I can’t help but see the film as another kind of memory of love. I know little of Sciamma’s biography, but I know what it’s like to be 27 and think about adolescence. I know that the film feels trapped in an urgent past.

With every glance I see memory forming in Anne, in Marie, in Floriane. I see moments they’re not old enough to understand that will be revisited again and again until they do. I see three girls desperate for belonging and connection and normalcy who will someday become women desperate for belonging and connection and individuality. Everything feels like the most important thing to them. The state of being okay feels so distant. But they’ll be okay. I want to reach into the screen, reach back into my memories, back into my past. I want to hold that confused child and tell her it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay. She has no idea.


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Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 163 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. This is the film I saw 10 years ago as a young lesbian, recognizing that there are distinguished differences in how men and women walk. As Floriane, Adèle Haenel’s walk was intoxicating. I watched those scenes over and over… I learned how to walk in my new identity from Floriane.

    Has anyone noticed how much walking is featured in all of Celine Sciamma’s films? Like adolescence trying to pace physical growth. There’s dynamism exposing character relationships in these scenes.

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