No room for the boys

by Kaori Shoji

Celine Sciamma could be a French Lisa Loeb, her straight hair and glasses offsets keen, intelligent eyes.

Only 27 years old, she caused a sensation in Cannes this year with her debut film “Naissance des pieuvres,” a coming-of-age tale that combines synchronized swimming and hints of lesbian desire.

Sciamma, who came to Tokyo with lead actress Adele Haenel to promote the film, says that she chose to set the story around an indoor pool because she wanted “a closed, confined, humid kind of place. Because that’s what adolescence is like, isn’t it?”

Sciamma says that her own teenage years were “fairly miserable, but no more than everyone else,” and adds that she always wanted to tell the story of that particular period “in my own way.”

What got you interested in synchro swimmers?

Like Marie, I was a teenager when I first came into contact with them. They were practicing in the local community pool in my neighborhood, and their athletic prowess impressed me so much. These girls and I were the same age, but they could do wonderful things in the water, and endure hours of practice when I was basically just a child, interested in books and comics but with no achievement I could claim for myself. It was a revelation for me, but at the same time filled me with a sense of inferiority. You know, when you’re 15 or 16 such feelings can have quite an impact.

So do you identify yourself with Marie?

Yes and no. Parts of myself are in all three of the characters, and I think many women will say the same. Floriane is a glamour girl, but she’s also needy and manipulative, behaving sometimes as though she doesn’t care, or would prefer to be ugly. And when you look at her closely, she’s not having much fun. In fact, she’s suffocating in a restrictive home environment in a boring suburban neighborhood, and the pool that she must go to everyday.

Synchro swimming really is so strange. It’s a competitive sport, but it also forces young women to plaster themselves with waterproof makeup, squeeze into ridiculous bathing costumes and go through arduous underwater routines with artificial grins stamped on their faces. It’s quite inhuman, when you come to think of it. And charm and sexiness is valued as part of the package, yes?

Absolutely. It would drive less confident girls insane. And there is, of course, a lot of sexual harassment without anyone thinking of it as such. There’s a scene in the film where the synchro girls are lined up with their arms raised in an arc, and the instructor walks up and down staring at their armpits. One girl is humiliated because her armpit isn’t completely hairless. That kind of thing is permitted in synchro because it’s a sport and supposed to be educational for teenagers.

There’s a lot of insightful observations about girls and the world they inhabit, but the boy FrancUois seems like such a nonentity.

Yes. Because from the viewpoint of a girl, boys are mysterious creatures, impossible to understand and very remote. I don’t think girls are particularly interested in understanding them either! And it would upset the story if Floriane had a deep, long conversation with FrancUois or something like that. So I deliberately avoided Francois (laughs). I also omitted the presence of parents because they would have spoiled the landscape too, you know? The ultimate objective of the film is to show what it’s like to be a 15-year-old girl. I wanted the audience to actually get inside their skins and experience what they were experiencing.

Was there a period in your own life when you preferred to be with girls instead of boys?

I think that there’s a period in most women’s lives when they prefer to be with each other than compete for the attention of men. As for myself, I have preferred to be with women since I was about 8 years old (laughs)!