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Adele Haenel in Water Lilies, directed by Celine Sciamma

Water Lilies : The Lesbian Empty and Feminist Abandonment

Written by
Louane Morin
and
and
December 14, 2023
Water Lilies : The Lesbian Empty and Feminist Abandonment
Adele Haenel in Water Lilies, directed by Celine Sciamma

Director and screenwriter Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)’s debut film Water Lilies was released in 2007, starring Adele Haenel, Pauline Acquart, and Louise Blachere. 

This film centers the coming of age of three fifteen-year-old girls as they navigate sexism and looming cultures of rape. Following a narrative structure that evokes the ideals of Second-Wave feminists such as Catherine Mackinnon and Monique Wittig, Water Lilies attempts to find female liberation through a questioning of sexist norms. After the story plays out, however, what remains is a disturbing account of the failures of these movements. All that Water Lilies leaves behind is Lesbian Empty, the chilling realization that the Lesbian politic it espouses as an escape from violent patriarchy has utterly failed, leaving behind a chilling void, and a disillusioned girl with no way out of her looming atmosphere of sexual violence.

Water Lilies opens on a scene set inside a female locker room, wherein a team of synchronized swimmers prepare for a performance. Young girls adorn themselves and each other with makeup, glitter, hair gel, and colourful costumes in a voyeuristic display of feminine rites. Adele Haenel’s character, Floriane, is the captain of this synchronized swimming team, but she is on her own, cut off from the rest of the team.

As the team’s swim routine goes on, the film’s protagonist Marie (Pauline Acquart) observes the team with a distant fascination, standing up to applaud their routine. After the end of the performance, she lingers near the door of the locker room, insatiably curious about the inner workings of the team’s dance.

Sciamma uses synchronized swimming as a symbol, a deeply performative but nonetheless beautiful thing. This comes to parallel the femininity of the film, especially in sexual contexts. Marie is utterly fascinated by the artificial beauty created by the cohesion of the swimmers as their bodies move through the pool. The dancers quite literally thread water, surrounded by an undeniable danger if they were to become too exhausted to go on, but nonetheless presenting an image of perfect femininity. They appear natural and effortless despite the layers of hard work creating this facade. Water Lilies presents femininity and female sexuality as a form of performance, a dance presenting a perfect image despite the ever-present danger it represents.

Behind the dynamics of this feminine dance, the character of Floriane presents a unique kind of sexist role-building. Floriane is deemed a “slut” by her teammates. In one scene, she eats a banana in the locker room, a teammate stating that she doesn’t know “how she [does] it.” Floriane expresses confusion, to which the teammate explains that any time there are bananas at her school’s cafeteria, she mashed them up, because boys will stare at any girl eating a banana. She remarks that that probably doesn’t matter, as she’s heard Floriane has “already done it.” 

Floriane does not fight off these judgemental comments, instead leaning into her perception as a slut. She openly flaunts to her teammates about supposed sexual encounters with men, much to their disgust. 

Later in the film, Floriane ends up confessing to Marie that she is actually a virgin. She sees her virginity as something to “get over with”, so that boys won’t know she’s “not a real slut.” Even as Floriane presents a perfected image of femininity, she fulfills a sort of underclass role prescribed onto her. 

Lily Alexandre’s fantastic video essay “What Are Women?” outlines the idea that “womanhood requires an underclass.” Alexandre uses the case of transmisogyny, trans women’s “medicalized bodies” allowing for cis women’s femininity to appear more “natural” in contrast. In a similar sense, Water Lilies presents sluts as a sort of underclass.

Floriane’s supposed promiscuity serves to make her peers appear more pure in contrast. She thus serves a sort of bordering role in the intra-feminine dynamics of this film, simultaneously rejected from female community and essential to its established dynamics. Floriane’s slut-shaming exclusion serves as a bonding exercise for the girls on her team. Continually pushing her out of the team’s community serves to empower the sexist ideals integral to the group’s dynamics, yet any success in getting her to leave the team would surely undermine the perception of purity of her peers.

Straightforwardly, Floriane explains “they don’t like me, so I don’t like them.” Female community in Water Lilies is extremely limited, reserved to only the most privileged women most correctly conforming to sexist roles. 

A single character attempts to befriend Floriane, Marie. Marie’s role is primarily one of observance, leaving any analysis or judgement to the very end of the film.

Marie follows Floriane about, following a devotion ever-swinging from observant fascination to desire. One moment she is watching the synchro swim team practice, and gelling down Floriane’s hair, and the next, she is eating apple cores dug out of Floriane’s trash. 

A milder predecessor to Call Me By Your Name’s peach scene? These fruits sure do love to eroticize fruits.

It is through Marie’s fascination with Floriane that the pair comes to a deal. In exchange for being allowed to watch Floriane’s team practice, Marie is to take Floriane out on “walks”, wherein she meets up with various boys, getting quite close to sex, but never going all the way. Floriane is marked by a terror of not living up to her reputation, a fear of not adequately fulfilling the sexual needs of her partners, whether or not that’s what she wants.

Floriane presents a high degree of awareness about the sexual dynamics at play in her life when explaining her virginity to Marie. 

One man, her swimming instructor, proposes to give her a massage, which Floriane refuses until she is worn down by his insistence. She describes him chasing her around the dressing rooms, all with a chilling sense of normalcy.

In another case, she describes swimming in the pool alone, before a man she knew from the pool jumped in, naked, exposing himself to her. She remarks that “a stiff one in cold water is attractive”, much to Marie’s horror, to which she replies “that’s life.”

Floriane urges Marie to tell her similar stories, which Marie has nothing to show for. In a sobering moment, she remarks “you’re lucky, Marie, very lucky.” A later exchange with Marie outlines the extent of rape culture present in Water Lilies. Where Marie sees consent as a self-evident concept, telling Floriane “if you don’t want to do it, don’t”, Floriane replies “I have to.” Marie asks “where’s that written?”, Floriane retorts “on my face, apparently.”

The reach of sexist culture established, Marie accompanies Floriane to a bar, in hopes that Floriane will be able to lose her virginity to a random older man. The film cuts to Marie interrupting Floriane hooking up in a man’s car, telling the man that Floriane is a child, the man not particularly phased by this realization.

For this time, Marie places herself in a position of reducing harm, hoping to prevent the sexual violence enacted unto Floriane from getting too bad. If sexual violence is an integral part of the slut social role inscribed unto Floriane, then Marie takes on the role of limiting the scope of damage, providing an escape for the more extreme cases.

After the failure of Floriane’s car hookup, she makes a daring choice, asking Marie to be the one to take her virginity. Marie initially refuses, but she changes her mind and decides to support Floriane, taking her virginity minutes before a boy comes into Floriane’s bedroom to have sex with her.

The sex between the two girls is shown as mechanical, upsetting. Despite Marie’s overcoming desire for the other girls, the tense atmosphere and larger context of the event makes it an uncomfortable scene, Floriane tightly sobbing and shedding tears.

After the violence of sex that marks the whole atmosphere of Water Lilies, how can the two girls navigate it? How can a marker of such sexist violence be relearned into something new and enjoyable? The appearance of joy that Floriane displays as she performs femininity for the men in her life is absent and, laid bare, she knows not how to make sex non-violent.

This scene marks a disillusionment for Marie, a slow end of her desire for Floriane. As the extent of ephemera behind the glorious femininity of Floriane comes to be exposed, Marie seems to coldly lose interest in the hurt girl behind the dance.

The girls’ relationship comes to an end at a party, where Marie kisses Floriane and asks her to stay with her, and Floriane instead goes to dance up on the boys present. Floriane asks Marie to stay by her side as she had done at the club, but Marie leaves.

This film, which started off so poetic and empathetic towards Floriane, abandons the girl to pan off as Marie floats calmly in the synchro swim team’s pool, symbolizing her forgoing of performance, in favor of floating, not doing, just being. Beyond any existing critiques of this ideal of transcending Butler's gender performance (whole other can of worms, this ideal is fantastically critiqued in Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto), the feminist narratives of Water Lilies are profoundly sexist and cruel.

Looking at Marie’s relationship to Floriane with a larger lens, some disturbing parallels are raised.

Marie’s initial desire and fascination with Floriane comes through the elevated and transcendent performance of gender she creates, staring longingly at her legs dancing underwater. Continually throughout the film, Marie is drawn to Floriane’s performance of unabridged femininity, an expression of a gendered ideal.

This all comes to a crash as she takes Floriane’s virginity. The facade of the confident, feminine slut comes down as Floriane has absolutely no idea how to separate sex from all of the violence she’s lived through. Marie herself loses any desire in this moment, taken aback by the tension and terror in the atmosphere.

Finally, the facade is down, and the scars left behind by the rape culture Floriane had held as a fact of life come to be seen. Immediately, at the death of the femininity she desired, Marie loses interest in Floriane. Beyond her fascinated desire for the gendered rituals and dances undergone by Floriane, Marie has little care or empathy for the girl left scarred and terrified by a sexuality that she’s only experienced as violent.

For a Second Wave Feminist, Marie’s abandonment of Floriane would be interpreted as a sort of disengagement from patriarchal women, from those who’ve internalized misogyny. An avid twitter user might describe this as “women centering men in their lives”, behind a guiltily hidden-away folder of trans girl porn and a half-read copy of SCUM Manifesto.

This certainly seems to be the suggestion of the film, drawing a parallel between Floriane’s forceful dance amidst flashing lights and Marie’s peaceful floating in the ending scene. As if at the site of Floriane’s treading water, forceful kicks to emanate beauty without drowning in the middle of girls who hate her, Marie has achieved some feminist awakening, she can now just exist.

This feminist abandonment of Floriane follows the cruelties of Water Lilies' radical feminist ethos. Marie only values Floriane for her femininity, for the performed identity she’s taken on. Marie not only abandons desire for Floriane once she strips from this performance, but she also abandons care and empathy for her. Marie puts Floriane in a situation she previously did everything to avoid—being in a room alone with sexually violent men and women who hate her. 

What is this lesbianism so praised by this wave of feminism as an escape from patriarchy? What is the inherent liberating value of lesbianism if it reproduces the same schemas as patriarchy, desiring an ephemeral femininity and abandoning the human beings performing that femininity? 

This lesbianism, Marie’s disengagement from the performance of femininity for men is not an act of liberation. This lesbianism is void, a Lesbian Empty carrying the same sexist cruelty as the men who abused Floriane. The Lesbian Empty refers to a project embarked on by Sciamma through Marie, to free women of sexist rule through disengagement with heterosexuality, and that project is a cruel lie.

What does the Feminist Abandonment of Floriane leave behind? Void. After she is swallowed by a room full of people who hate her, all that is left behind is the Lesbian Empty, the impossibly loud silence of a salvation taken from her through the same sexism that it proclaimed it would free her from.

Arthur Spring Elections 2024
Miracle Territory April 20th
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Arthur Spring Elections 2024
Miracle Territory April 20th
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Arthur News School of Fish

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