GIRLS ON TOPS: Water Lilies and the Mechanics of Femininity


Girls beat the water, churning it up, are propelled into the air, and plunge beneath the surface. Thrust, twirl, split. Thrust, twirl split. Crane, Eggbeater, Descending Spin. 

To synchronise is to happen at the same time, or to do what the other person, or people, or cog or wheel, is doing. In Water Lilies, Céline Sciamma’s 2007 debut feature, synchronisation speaks to the mechanics of femininity and the filmmaker employs the high-shine world of synchronised swimming as context, aesthetic and form.

The film considers femininity as both product and mode of production, through this prism of precision and surfaces and hierarchies. A triptych of female characters explore the paradox of camaraderie and rivalry among young women, both in friendship and in competitive sports, while an aesthetic of artifice and slickness, in tight-licked hair, glossed mouths, and lycra-clad bodies summons what Audre Lorde calls the “plasticised sensation” of the erotic in mainstream culture. Sometimes that plasticised sensation gets turned into labour. Here, poker-straight postures and drill-legs and poolside line-ups are conveyor belts and factory lines of femininity, at the heart of which are these bodies. We watch them perform from the bleachers, mouths gasping for air in constant states of submersion and emersion, and bound up in this paradox of visibility and invisibility. I am reminded of Rebecca Solnit in Recollections of My Non-Existence when the writer says femininity is “a perpetual disappearing act, an erasure and a silencing to make more room for men, one in which your existence is considered an aggression and your nonexistence a form of gracious compliance.”

Set amongst the architectural right angles of suburban Paris, Water Lilies is a convoluted game of cat and mouse. It centres on the slight, awkward, near-mute 15-year old Marie (Pauline Acquart) and her sexual awakening with Floriane (Portrait’s Adele Haenel), the beautiful dead-eyed swim team captain. Marie pursues Floriane by trying to join the team. But Floriane has her sights set on Francois, the school jock. Marie’s best friend Anne (Louise Blachere) — also awkward, but in a way that is too much or kind of extra — is in pursuit of Francois too. By the end of the film, Marie gets her moment with Floriane and Anne gets Francois, as well as revenge on him for his abuse of her feelings — she lingers for a kiss before spitting in his mouth.

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