I recently watched for the second time, the 2007 debut film by French writer-director Céline Sciamma, Les Naissance des Pieuvres (Birth of Octopuses) translated for its English language release as ‘Water Lillies’.
I first saw this film about 8 years ago and was left with a feeling that it was one of those films whose space had left me in some way haunted.
Its a relatively humble story in its feel and setting. A triumverate of female teenagers in the suburbs, living in different skins of their appearance, with different thresholds of excitement and action in life. Each approaches a kind of dawn of active sexuality and how these circumstances and the character’s actions pan out, describe a beautifully nuanced and deep opportunity through story.
The film plays out around the social, sporting locus of synchronised swimming and this repeated exposed act of profound discipline, focus and coordination, the strange rictuses of gleaming facial expression, while propelling the synchronicity with such effort is beguiling in its repeated aptness. The film reveals sexuality, and from the perspectives of the girl’s characters – as a kind of force of impending discovery and perhaps more archly, one of apparent necessity.
It is something felt, something felt as nascent, felt as encountered repeatedly, through desire, through social necessity, through contact and love. The film is exquisite in its apparent simplicity of focus, the entwining friendships of the existing, then the new and libidinalised attractiveness of Floriane, her distant and alluring beauty – whose attractiveness to men of all ages is of the darker tenets in the film’s exploration.
The effect of the story is also catalysed by the fact that in their own way all three of the main characters are outsiders, they each know and to a different extent live through this outsiderism. Here though, it is used as an additional factor of its lens, that they carry the awareness that they are outside of the normal (although the most seemingly aware in this sense is Marie – played with beautiful poise and deep silence by Pauline Acquart). This space, between our main characters and their own relationship with the social is the gap through which we get to see the different factors of the ‘normal’ and how precisely normality is a name for something else. To which at one point Marie, in answering something described as maybe not being a ‘normal’ question says, ‘so what?’
Celine Sciamma’s work is also poised in its lack of concession to any world which is not immanent to the girls and their unfolding stories. Their parents are mere voids of possibility, behind a door, or there in mention. It is the network of prescience in these girl’s lives, the fact that what they are dealing with is coming through their biology, (powerfully activated for example when Anne begins sweating while dancing at the party) and yet plays out in stratified social events of male/female groupings, with divergent pairings that create moments of the directly sexualised.
There is no sugar coating here, males are more or less encountered in the context of being hungry lustovarians with little concern for the personal in their search for the intimate, which of course de-intimates the experiences themselves. At one point – wordless images of teenage boys at a party, suddenly gives an expression to an energetic moment of their becomings – to which we are also suddenly juxtaposed, it is striking and in its own way, a moment as revealing as any of the longer, socially-gilded understandings of the personal and beyond we’ve seen through the female lens.
We also get to see the playing out of each of the girl’s recurrent modes of being in relation to the social and in relation to how they perceive their attractions and themselves. The journey itself is handled with startling nuance and care and I feel we are left with the feeling of the intensity of the characters and their directions. There is no nostalgia or pity, it is the simple hard fact of the reality of people’s directions and how they understand this to resonate.
I think one of the reasons I found it such an experience to watch relates to the music by Para One (French techno musician Jean-Baptiste de Laubier). The soundtrack, mostly electronic gives a kind of additional resonant edge to the images, with the repetitive blues and whites of the space of the water and the walls, the dim shopping mall or the white light of the suburbs, and where the insects sing as we walk through back yards, streets and rough hewn scurf-places of the young.
I’ve been following a line of thought about electronic music in film for some time and as I came to write this I had a sudden feeling of serendipitous relation, that the feeling I had about watching and taking in the space of Les Naissance… had a kin with the Soderbergh breakthrough film Sex, Lies and Videotape. A film which transported me through its space when I watched it as a young man.
Of course expressions of the modes of sexuality are central to both these films and maybe this is something Sciamma and Soderbergh are sharing in a necessary way in relation to the space of the films, yet the feeling that I had when I checked the soundtrack to the latter was to find it similarly as potent.
At key moments, Cliff Martinez’ beautiful score is mostly electronic ambient and as such, it seems that the resonance of the space which I was reflecting on is almost certainly something taking place on the plane of the sonic and its interaction with a deeper spatialisation of the visual – in the context of these two powerful stories examining the sexual at different points in life.
Though I would not want to compare them too closely (and although it has been a long time since I watched the latter) because as powerful as Sex, Lies… is (and as much as I recall it to be), I cannot help feeling that Sciamma’s story and its telling has inculcated a kind of extra dimension of impact to their story by its being solely based around female teenagers. While the Spader character’s impotence and the deceitful, harmful sexual relationships of his old college pal (Peter Gallagher) are the foils that open the space of the film to tell its story (and the Spader character ultimately disrupts and helps break the sisters out), it is simply not as wild as the space of becomings through which the girls in Naissance… are arriving at the worlds of the story.
They are in the desert of space, in a beautiful lagoon of (potentially) trapped futures of sexual determinism and how they approach and respond is crystaline-feeling in terms of the precise and focused movement of the story and its gift of what we get to see and learn.
Re-watching something like this clip above (seen with better quality here maybe) gives me the sense that music like this brings with it a number of different facets. Primarily, there is a kind of haunting sustained tonality of these frequencies and their interactions, their shimmering higher melodic form above sustained and deeper drones. The sense of a certain scale, a duration that ongoes, a form that has a kind of warm glaciality or vastness, but still there shimmering, as if we are actually encountering vast floes of one’s worlds of feeling and their resonance, convoy fleets of the feeling of the moment. Their resonance in space particularly, the arriving of worlds of intensity in the form of tone, whose harmonic content form a momentary overall, the overall feeling and tone(s) (non-acoustic) of the scene and of the story; a somehow exponentialised gateway in the feeling-space of soundtrack.
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