May 16, 2008

Interview with Céline Sciamma, director of Water Lillies

I missed Water Lillies when it was in New York recently but I was able to screen this very interesting film of young girls exploring their burgeoning sexuality in advance of the film opening this weekend in LA at the Nuart. (The film will be playing in a variety of cities throughout the summer and will be on DVD in September.)

First-time French director Céline Sciamma answered some questions about her debut film.

Women & Hollywood: There are so few films that realistically deal with girls coming of age that your film is like a breath of fresh air. Why do you think this is a topic is not explored more when boys coming of age films are so common?

Céline Sciamma: Cinema has been celebrating women for a century now but men have mostly done the talking. I think you have to be a woman to be truly genuine and committed to the subject and to tell that particular story, especially when it comes to coming of age stories. Hopefully, the rise of a generation of women filmmakers means that the topic will be explored.
W&H: You said that it's a tough job to be a girl. What do you mean by that?
CS: It's a tough job because of the many things that are expected girls that are often contradictory. Being strong but hiding your strength, being in charge but not being officially the boss. It’s a tough job because girls live in a man’s world.
W&H: Synchronized swimming is such a bizarre feminine activity. It's hard and athletic so you need to train but its also about beauty and smiling and looking pretty. Why did you choose to use synchronized swimming as the focal point of so many of the film's activities?
CS: The thing that interested me mostly about synchronized swimming is the way it tells a lot about the girl’s condition. Synchronized swimmers are soldiers who look like dolls. On the surface they have to pretend that they don’t suffer, with all the makeup and the fake smiles, whereas underwater/underneath they painfully struggle with the element. Synchronized swimming is about pretending, it’s about hiding the pain and the sacrifice you go through to be officially gracious. Those two levels you can find in ordinary teenagehood.
W&H: You said that Floriane's character gave you the opportunity to explore the tragedy of being a pretty girl. What do you mean by that?
CS: Films usually celebrate the beauty of girls like it’s an achievement. But being beautiful is an issue just as being unattractive is. It’s something you have to deal with, something you have to face. The lust that it generates. It’s one of the problems of femininity.
W&H: There seems to be a disconnect (especially here in the US) between the taboo of discussing the reality of girls sexuality and the constant push towards sexualizing girls through clothing, ads and images in the media. Do you have any thoughts on that?
CS: That’s one of the illustration of the tough job of being a girl! That’s the kind of contradiction girls have to deal with everyday. They have to lift up to the fantasy and in the meantime be discreet about their feelings and their urges. They must trigger desire but they don’t have the right to express theirs.
W&H: Why did you pick the title Water Lilies?
CS: I didn’t pick it myself actually. It’s the international title. The original french title is "Naissance des pieuvres" which means "Birth of the Octopussies". Rather different as you can see! But I really like the title "Water Lilies", it’s more smooth than the french title and it has that poetic feeling. One can say that the three characters are like waterlilies, beautiful flowers on the surface but hiding deep roots…
W&H: Do you think its easier for women directors in Europe and if yes, why?
CS: I don’t know if it’s easier, but this year –and I hope it’s not a coincidence- a lot of the first time french directors were women. France has a tradition of women filmmakers that really began in the 90’s and keeps blooming. But one cannot talk about Europe. I don’t know any women directors in Italy, nor Spain… When I came to New York for the release, film teachers at NYU were telling me that there most promising student were women… Something might be happening here…
W&H: Do you think your film is a feminist film?
CS: When a public woman is asked if she is a feminist, she tends to answer "no", as if it was some kind of an insult. I think the film is feminist. That doesn’t mean that the film is made for a woman audience, that doesn’t mean that it’s an exposé. It’s a story that I wanted to be generous, catchy, and touching. It’s feminist because it goes beyond the fantasy, because it goes against the folklore of teenage girl’s in cotton underwear. Water Lilies goes in the locker rooms of girls not to eye-drop, but to see the crude reality. It allows everyone in the audience to experience what it’s like to be a girl.