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Bechdel Test Canon Double Feature: Water Lilies and Show Me Love

I risk riding a trend with today's entry. There are a number of contemporary lesbian coming-of-age films. Some of the better-known titles include Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader, and Maria Maggenti's The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. I also have a soft spot for Alex Sichel's riot grrrl-influenced All Over Me and wish Babbit's Itty Bitty Titty Committee was better executed.

A number of foreign releases focus on queer girlhood, including Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love (which includes a score co-written by Alison Goldfrapp) and Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's divisive love vigilante thriller Baise-moi. It's kind of surprising that Jack and Diane, a supernatural thriller about teenage lesbians initially set to star Ellen Page, is still in production. Surely the subject matter isn't what's causing the delay. You may also note that several of these films privilege white queer girlhood, which is part of what makes a film like Dee Rees' Pariah such an event for many filmgoers. I'm certainly anticipating it and hope I can cover it for this series.

Anne Marie and Floraine Water Lilies

Regrettably, both films I'm discussing today take whiteness as a given. However, they do address class differences and don't shy away from some of the uglier realities of adolescent female homosociality. What I also like about both of them is that they don't frame coming out as the films' main narrative impulse. Michael Bronski notes in his Cineaste article "Positive Images and the Coming Out Film" that a number of LGBT coming-of-age stories figure coming out as a happy ending.* Coming out is a long, ongoing process for most people. The act of coming out also has consequences and is dangerous for many queer youth, who risk ostracism, bigotry, and violence from their communities and families. Such actions and feelings cannot be hemmed in by a credits sequence.

Sciamma's 2007 Water Lilies (French title: Naissance des Pieuvres, which means "birth of the octopuses") doesn't have a big moment of resolution—it simply ends when Marie (Pauline Acquart) stops chasing glamorous bad girl Floriane (Adèle Haenel) and realizes that her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère) was there all along. The couple in Lucas Moodysson's 1998 Show Me Love (Swedish title: Fucking Åmål, renamed after Robyn's hit single for its American release) announce their relationship at the end of the film and with that declaration, outgoing, working-class Elin (Alexandra Dahlström) reveals her orientation. But her partner, shy, middle-class outsider Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg), is established as out by the start of the film.

Apart from their release dates and national cinematic contexts, Water Lilies and Show Me Love look very different. Sciamma's film is lyrical yet slick. This is meant to reflect the underwater theatrics enacted by her characters, who are involved in the world of synchronized swimming. I think it also reinforces the film's comfortable surroundings and thematic preoccupation with social climbing. Popular Floraine is coded as being of a higher socioeconomic position than Marie and Anne, who themselves appear to be "typical" middle-class French girls. By contrast, Moodysson's feature is grainy, beige, and poorly lit. He would employ a similar production design for such films as Lilya 4-Ever, a harrowing tale about a girl's descent into sex trafficking. But I think Moodysson uses such a harsh, limited palate to illustrate that Åmål is a dead-end small town, particularly for queer girls. Though quiet, Agnes is quite brave. She risks and endures bullying as a result of being out. Elin, a popular party girl, fears the rejection of her peers and spends most of the film being unable to match Agnes' courage.

The production design might help Moodysson raise the film's emotional stakes, or at least manipulate the viewer's sympathies. Sciamma appears to be on Anne's side in Water Lilies, depicting Marie as weak-willed and Floraine as beautiful and unavailable. But apart from characterizing Floraine as a slender blonde and Anne as a chubby brunette, the film lacks much insight into the characters' subjectivities. By contrast, Moodysson uses rock music and wrist-cutting to (sometimes clumsily) illustrate Agnes' loneliness. Perhaps most impressively, he refuses to turn her into a saint by showing that she is capable of indulging in cruelty and petulance.

In ways that recall Jane Campion's short, A Girl's Own Story, writer-directors Sciamma and Moodysson's Water Lilies and Show Me Love observe the myriad of ways girls develop rivalries, use boys, and betray one another through peer pressure, teenage cruelty, and hormonal angst. But lest these films be categorized by Netflix as "Foreign Films about the Heinous Shit Girls Do to Each Other," I think the relationships developed and intimacies shared in both films are moving and deeply felt. Water Lilies ends with Marie and Anne's romantic baptism in a swimming pool. Show Me Love closes with two girls having a proper first date over chocolate milk after school. Some may argue that both films find resolution through coupling, and thus play into coming out films' illusory optimism. But the tentative nature of these couplings and the social environments that could threaten to undermine them suggest that these stories are only beginning. But I'm rooting for both couples anyway. Call me a romantic.

Agnes and Elin Show Me Love

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* Bronski, Michael. "Positive Images and the Coming Out Film: The Art and Politics of Gay and Lesbian Cinema". Cineaste. 26.1. 2000. 20–26.

Previously: I Like It Like That, Made in Dagenham

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