Monday, March 4, 2013

Water Lillies--no-spoilers review of this 2008 French film

A film review should help you decide whether or not to see the film. It shouldn't be some reviewer's soapbox. Rather, it's like a matchmaking service, looking not for the reviewer's ideal spouse, but the one for you.

That's what I'll try to do here.

First some filters: this is an organically-paced film in French, with subtitles, shot on a low budget. So if you demand that everything you see look like a glossy Hollywood spectacular, skip "Water Lilies." Even the landscapes aren't gorgeous. This is the Paris of sprawling anonymous suburbs. I'm not sure the characters have even seen the Eiffel Tower... except on TV.

And skip it if you're looking for French porn shot from a middle-aged male point of view (Louis Malle comes to mind). There's nudity here but it's painful, not titillating. There's powerful romantic passion but not the kind of elaborately choreographed love scenes that pass for "sexy" in Hollywood.

Also skip it if you're looking for a lesbian film. It's not about the lesbian community. It's not about a teen discovering she's lesbian and dealing with family and friends who are horrified, yada yada. None of that. There is at least one lesbian in the film, but that doesn't make it a lesbian film, any more than the presence of a black guy in a leading role in "The Matrix" made it a "black film." Lesbianism isn't the subject of "Wild Lilies."

Moreover, skip it if you don't want to see how three fifteen-year old girls see the world. This is what led to one singularly dense reviewer calling this a man-hating film. Well, duh. Imagine what boys are like from a fifteen year old girl's perspective. Girls mature emotionally before boys do, by and large. Boys don't catch up until they're in their 20s (if ever, some might add). The boys' preoccupation with getting laid, coupled with their emotional tone-deafness, makes them seem just like they're presented in this movie. If you're a man reading this, think back. You were like that then, weren't you? Be honest. Aren't you embarrassed by how you behaved during your first years of dating? I know I am.

Lastly, skip it if you want to cling to the belief that teenagers live strictly within the boundaries of a Disney teen comedy like, say, "Freaky Friday." I don't want to give away the plot, so I won't get into specifics like some other reviewers do, but some of the stuff these teens do will make you sit back and go "Whoa..."

But in retrospect it all makes sense--especially since these three teens are all outsiders: the girl boys lust after but who girls hate/despise; the overweight girl desperate for love; and the central figure, a skinny girl (think Scarlett Johansson without the curves) with the passionate depth of Juliet without any of Juliet's Shakespearian articulacy--and whose Romeo is ambivalent about her.

Hollywood screenwriters love the sound of their own words (with some exceptions, like Clint Eastwood), and their screen teens jabber incessantly, usually with the language and obsessions of a middle-aged male screenwriter ("Dawson's Creek"). But "Water Lilies"' teens talk in monosyllables, like many teens do.

And Hollywood teen actors grin and grimace and in general emote the paint off the walls. "Wild Lilies"'s teens look at the world through hooded eyes, with guarded expressions, never revealing more of what's going on inside than they have to.

This looks like non-acting to those accustomed to seeing people sawing the air with their hands and chewing the scenery. To watch this movie you have to recalibrate your head so you can watch people acting like people really act.

Do that, though, and you'll be rewarded richly. Pauline Acquart, who plays the movie's central figure Marie, is in nearly every scene; the movie rests on her narrow shoulders. As I said, she gives away nothing she doesn't have to. Yet hers is one of the most compelling portrayals I've seen of love so powerful it's nearly self-annihilating. But even then she never blurts out one of those totally phony self-revealing-speeches Hollywood uses to explain a character's motivations.

You have to watch Acquart as closely as she watches everyone around her to pry loose her secrets. And even though her love is probably hopeless, and even though it consumes her, she maintains an admirable, stoic dignity. Her courage is equally formidable. She's not one of those outgoing characters who naturally dominates a room. Nor is she a stalker, because stalkers believe their stalkee feels the same way about them and act accordingly. Marie has no such illusions.

Yet even though she has neither charisma, connections, nor the pseudo-courage of a nutcase, nor great beauty, she builds a connection with the one she wants, sometimes cautiously, sometimes boldly, as the occasion demands. She's an audacious general commanding a ragtag force in a war for someone's heart, and it's both fascinating and touching to watch her campaign evolve.

There's a scene in "Jerry Maguire" in which Renee Zelwegger's character dumps Tom Cruise's character, even though she loves him completely, because she can tell he doesn't love her as intensely as she loves him. Acquart's character, albeit less articulately, shows she's capable of the same kind of decision--even though she also shows that she will do almost anything for her Romeo (who's a female, as it happens, but this Romeo being female is absolutely not the point).

One other thing: this film shows us a few weeks in the lives of these three fifteen year olds. When the film ends, we don't know what "happens" later. That is, nothing is wrapped up with a ribbon tied around it. Nor should you expect the film to do so. These are 15 year olds, for heaven's sake.

Some Greek poet said "Call no man happy until his life is over." Likewise with these girls.

That said, I hope the director makes a sequel, with these same three actors. They've earned it. And they've earned your viewership--if you're worthy of this film.


Note: I posted this review on Amazon in 2008, before I started this blog, & I only just realized I hadn't copied it here. It got 15 comments on Amazon BTW--pretty good for such an obscure (in America at least) film.