Céline Sciamma is having a moment. Following the 2019 festival debut and this year’s cinematic release ofPortrait of a Lady on Fire, she is currently the subject of Mubi UK’s ‘Focus on’ retrospective. This programme explores Sciamma’s refreshing coming-of-age dramas centring around themes of sexuality, gender identity, and marginal lives. Portrait has been featured, as will Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014). The most recent addition is Sciamma’s 2007 debut Water Lilies, a tender portrait of young love and self-discovery in the waters of a suburban French swimming pool. 

Water Lilies was first selected for screening at Cannes 2007, in the Un certain regard programme that celebrates unorthodox storytelling. The film then earned Sciamma a Best Debut nomination at the 2008 César Awards, and stars Adèle Haenel and Louise Blachère were both nominated for Most Promising Actress. Water Lilies is a dynamic, idiosyncratic coming-of-age story that dips its toe into the waters of desire—and the confusion that follows this early discovery. A recurrent theme in Sciamma’s filmography is her unique and individual perception of lust, love, loss, and the resulting melancholic introspection. Her films overtly explore the complexities of womanhood, and her depiction of the female experience using the female gaze is rarely present in cinema.  

Sciamma’s assured artistic vision, present from her debut feature, balances the gentle and poised against the sharp and striking. Interestingly, she insisted shortly after Water Lilies premiered that she never intended to become a director—in the interview linked below, she notes that this unintended path allowed her style to remain untainted or unaffected by any preconceived notions of ‘how the work should look’.

Her novel approach lends itself to the raw emotional stories of femininity and the confusion of adolescence with which she deals. Much of her filmmaking centres around a careful observation of habits and behaviours, capturing the subsequent emotional turmoil under the surface. Before filming Water Lilies, Sciamma spent a month with the cast to develop characters and chemistry. This hands-on approach is a key factor in creating the intimacy and authentic emotions that her films project. 

The plot centres around 15 year-old Marie (Pauline Acquart), her attraction to local synchronised swimming team captain Floriane (Adèle Haenel), and the subsequent self-discovery and pain this brings. The film is set in Sciamma’s hometown, which she has since described as a place that has a unique look while defying locational specificity. It represents a middle-class suburban town which in itself is as ambiguous as the plot, facilitating Sciamma’s exploration of teenage desire from an unconventional and distinctly feminine perspective. 

Marie’s devastating crush on Floriane, signalled by her focused gaze in the opening scene, becomes the film’s focal point. Floriane has a reputation for promiscuity with boys, which garners negative connotations with the girls on her swim team. Marie and Floriane’s friendship initially stems from Floriane’s use of Marie as a tool for attention, or as a friend she does not have among her teammates. Additionally, Marie only meets Floriane through going to the swimming pool with her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère), who is an outcast for opposite reasons. Floriane is conventionally desirable but lonely, while Anne is lonely because she does not fit beauty conventions. Neither interacts with each other, but they are linked by Marie and by polarising relationships with popular water polo player François (Warren Jacquin). Sciamma offers sympathy to both pariahs without excusing Floriane’s cold and calculated carelessness.

This atypical, open approach further plays with the conventions of the American teen movie, which Sciamma describes as ‘the American Pie template’: the beautiful girl ‘ha[s] to be very beautiful and blonde’, and the other ‘fat’ girl has to be awkward. Sciamma then takes expectations in unconventional directions, aiming to ‘pervert [the genre] and take the characters on a journey that they perhaps wouldn’t have been on.’ On this note, the content is sometimes provocative—though despite the very real teenage bodies on screen, the film’s intimacy never feels voyeuristic, thanks to Crystel Fournier’s observant, non-invasive cinematography and the focus on the characters’ inner feelings.


Courtesy of: StudioCanal

Synchronised swimming proves an ideal metaphor for the film’s plot; on the surface the sport is a regimented display of disciplined femininity, while a more chaotic and frantic struggle plays out beneath the water. Indeed swimming, pools, and bodies of water feature in several other films released around the mid 2000s with similar stories of youth and desire. Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl (2004) follows a teenager who finds sexual awakening in a stranger, whom she later begins to stalk, and also features a swimming pool the characters see as a vehicle to cleanse perceived sins.

Yee Chin-Yen’s Blue Gate Crossing (2002), meanwhile, ambiguously presents a young girl’s exploration of her sexuality—with a boy she possibly likes, and a girl she possibly loves. Water is again prominent, with a swimming pool and an ocean representing idyllic places of social interaction. There is bliss on the surface, but the chaotic nature of love is revealed as the waters deepen.

In Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s Jellyfish (2007) the waters of Tel Aviv represent an intersection of stories for, and personal connection between, three female characters. Water is seen either filling the apartment of  a character whose life appears to be slowly falling to pieces, or as the seas in which another character spots a mute child walking hopelessly—in both scenarios, water is uncontrollable.

More recently, Sciamma revisits the motif in Portrait of a Lady on Fire—this time through the sea. Her protagonists are initially separated by water; the film opens with Marianne, the painter, crossing it on her journey, and eventually builds to a delicate moment of admiration and gazing affection as Marianne witnesses her love walk naked into the bay.


Courtesy of: Studio Canal

Body language and unspoken dialogue are fundamental to Sciamma’s filmmaking. Through movement, positioning, and noting each other’s behaviour—think of how Portrait‘s Heloise and Marianne constantly watch each other—characters convey emotions they do not speak and desires they do not project more openly. In Water Lilies, Marie comes across as gawky and awkward, as if guarded and uncomfortable in her own body. This is contrasted against Anne’s confidence; when François accidentally walks in on Anne changing she stares back at him in confrontation, naked and unashamed.

As Marie and Floriane’s friendship blossoms into more intimate territory, the pair’s body language hints at affection. This results in a carefully choreographed non-graphic sex scene, which exemplifies the delicacy used to portray both fear and tenderness. Sciamma’s careful eye for body language is also key in conveying the cruelty that follows unrequited love and the unjust frustrations of fraught friendship. The latter bubbles to the surface in a McDonald’s restaurant, as Marie—fists clenched, body sprung backward—tells a preoccupied Anne she is ‘fed up of her’.

Marie’s growing affection for Floriane borders on voyeuristic as she observes the gestures she does not engage in, watching from behind a wall at the swimming baths as François places his hand on Floriane’s waist in a steamy exchange. This varying yet measured body language, and how the audience and characters take it in, shows the clear time and arrangement spent with the cast before production, fine-tuning arcs and chemistry. 


Courtesy of: Studio Canal

Water Lilies‘ conclusion is bittersweet, yet ultimately empowering. Floriane is left dancing alone at a party. Marie, having given up on the romance between them, reunites with Anne, their hands linked in the swimming pool. They have rejected the insincerity the party represents, yet all three characters remain relatable, their inexpressible, confusing, and painful desires laid bare.

This emphatic final sequence represents the beginnings of Sciamma’s stories of love, lust, and loss; in her hands these are traumatic and real but ultimately rewarding and cathartic. Though many of the motifs feature throughout her films, Water Lilies is a striking debut in which these elements combine to create a realistic teenage experience—one that does not conform to genre or narrative stereotypes. Water Lilies remains vital, a testament to Sciamma’s world-building skill and a contemporary example of teenage emotion from the female gaze.