‘Naissance des pieuvres’

Teen angst from the girls' perspective


Karl Marx once divided the world into the haves and have-nots, but in the world of teenagers one of the main divides — less significant but nonetheless painful — is that of the pretty and unpretty.

In “Naissance des pieuvres” (Japan title: “Mizu no Naka no Tsubomi”), the power dynamics between the two camps shift and change but never go so far as to tip the scales; in the end there’s no triumph or glory for the unpretty, and the pretty remain their arrogantly gorgeous selves, albeit with their sheen a little diminished.

Directed by 27-year old Celine Sciamma in an astounding feature debut, “Naissance” is precise, uncluttered and (despite the subject matter) very disciplined. There’s nothing extraneous about the visuals or sentimental about the story. The texture of the film has something of legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and his measured, less-is-more aesthetic — though the content is worlds apart.

Naissance des pieuvres
Director Celine Sciamma
Run Time 85 minutes
Language French

On the surface, “Naissance” has all the ingredients of a teenage crowd pleaser: a gorgeous blonde in a flaming red bathing suit, a hunky boy in a Speedo, the plain girl and her fat friend, and late night parties by the swimming pool. But five minutes into the story, real teens (and crowds used to generous portions of sex, drugs and violence) will find it too introverted and clinical for comfort.

“Naissance de pieuvres,” which means “Birth of Octopuses” in French, is a film pitched at an adult, film festival-going kind of audience that would be intrigued by its stubborn reticence and aggressive intelligence. True, the frames are rife with sexual tension and angst, but there’s very little actual sexuality, and there’s none of the easy, raucous verbosity that characterize most teenage movies. Silent and morose, the characters are given to exchanging long, pensive looks with each other or with their reflections in mirrors and shopping-mall windows as if hoping for some revelation in the examination of their young, vulnerable selves. They hardly smile or get animated; it’s not that they’re bored exactly, they just can’t be bothered.

“Naissance” is set in the summer, but it’s curiously low temperature and dispassionate, and the sultriness of French summer films like “Plein Soleil” is just plain absent. Skinny Marie (Pauline Acquart) wanders listlessly around her suburban hometown in shapeless jeans. Her best friend is the brash, plump and pimpled Anne (Louise Blachere). They both hope to join the girls’ synchronized swimming team that meets at the local community pool — Anne because she has a crush on the hunky FrancUois (Warren Jacquin) who swims there, Marie because she’s obsessed with the synchro team’s beauty queen, Floriane (Adele Haenel).

Floriane quickly sees why Marie spends entire afternoons around the pool casting looks in her direction, and she uses the girl to her own advantage — as an excuse to get out of her house to go on dates with FrancUois, which are conducted in what looks like a dark tunnel at the far end of their neighborhood. She picks up Floriane at her house where her strict parents keep tabs on their daughter’s comings and goings. This mistress-maid relationship would have escalated, if not for Anne, who upsets the equilibrium with her outward jealousy of Floriane (in more ways than one) and her insistent demands on Marie’s time and affection.

Sciamma draws the cruelty and insecurity of mid-teen girls with quiet reassurance and it feels personal and autobiographical in a way that applies to anyone who suffered through adolescence. Sex is an all-encompassing factor for the three girls; they’re alternately overcome by fear, elation and an unshakable queasiness. Surprisingly, it’s Anne who courageously deals with the issue with the audacity of plunging into the deep end of the pool. Floriane, for all her developed physical beauty, is reluctant and insecure; she’d rather eat a banana after practice with tantalizing deliberation or stand for a long time under the communal shower by the poolside, displaying herself to dozens of lustful stares.

Marie watches and craves, but whether her desire is entirely for Floriane or for her underwater acrobatics and the enormous effort she puts into it (Marie herself is uncoordinated and graceless), is never really defined, reminding us of that other teenage divide: those who achieve and those who don’t. Watching them, the feeling is less of nostalgia than of a mild horror, at how coming of age forces all that angst on young girls when they’re least equipped to withstand the turmoil.