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GIRLS CAN’T SWIM (Filles ne savent pas nager, Les) (director/writer: Anne-Sophie Birot; screenwriter: Christophe Honoré; cinematographer: Nathalie Durand; editor: Pascale Chavance; music: Ernest Chausson; cast: Isild Le Besco (Gwen), Karen Alyx (Lise), Pascale Bussieres (Celine), Pascal Elso (Alain), Marie Riviere (Lise’s Mother,), Dominique Lacarrière (Rose), Yelda Reynaud (Solange), Sandrine Blancke (Vivianne), Julien Cottereau (Fredo); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Philippe Jacquier/Yvon Crenn; Wellspring Media; 1999-France-English subtitles)
“An overly melodramatic but somewhat insightful French coming-of-age film …”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An overly melodramatic but somewhat insightful French coming-of-age film about two 15-year-old girlfriends, Gwen (Isild Le Besco) and Lise (Karen Alyx), who have to learn about facing more serious problems this summer than they ever have before. “Girls” is overall an efficiently accomplished debut for director and co-writer Anne-Sophie Birot. Its most successful feature is showing the playfulness of the young girls as they relate to each other and to Gwen’s father Alain (Pascal Elso), and how emotionally immature they really are despite their womanly physical attributes.

The tall, lanky, well-developed, robust, hormone stimulated, flowing longhaired blonde Gwen lives in a touristy seacoast fishing village in Brittany with her seemingly contented parents in their pleasant cottage. We first see her getting into a playful spray can fight with a number of boys in the schoolyard on the last day of school before the summer vacation. Her mother Celine (Pascale Bussieres) has a laid-back attitude in disciplining her tempestuous only child, while her independent fisherman dad seems like a decent guy except for an occasional violent mood swing and drunken bout. He is preoccupied with money woes and stays home because his old fishing boat engine is kaput. Gwen looks forward for the usual summer visit from her longtime city friend Lise, as her mother usually rents a cottage in the resort town. But this is the first summer that Gwen can remember that Lise can’t come. She’s surprised to learn that Lise, a good student, flunked her school subjects and must attend summer school. The carefree Gwen has been going out with Fredo (Julien Cottereau) since the Easter vacation, and has been having sex with him regularly in her father’s docked boat. The restless and moody Gwen smokes and drinks openly in front of her parents. We only see her disciplined once by her dad with a slap across her face for staying out all night without permission. It happened when Gwen approached two vacationing boys and had sex with each of the strangers on the beach. Her dad also caught her one time having sex with Fredo in his boat, but just stares hard at her and chooses to say nothing.

The film cuts away to tell busty, freckled, redheaded, Lise’s story of how she’s spending her summer during the same time frame with her mother and her two older sisters. She’s more downbeat, poetry minded and inward than her more boisterous friend, and is unhappy about attending school. She soon learns that her father died in a car accident in England, but doesn’t write Gwen about it and hardly knows how to react to her abandoned father’s death. Her mother (Marie Riviere) says, “We slept alone for 10 years. Your father’s death doesn’t mean anything.” But that sentiment seems to belie the sad mood that overcomes her.

The two girls join together when Lise secretly journeys by bus to Gwen’s place. Gwen only learns of the death through her mother, who phoned Lise’s parents. Lise exclaims she’s too ashamed to tell anyone of her father’s death, while Gwen fails to tell her about her boyfriend. There seems to be a growing lack of communication between the girls who seem to have been more than just friends, as Lise is now puzzled on how to act with Gwen. The pivotal scene comes when Fredo is having sex with Gwen in her room and the sleeping Lise awakens and all hell breaks loose, as the Sapphic nature of their relationship is hinted at but never developed. The noise draws Gwen’s parents to make the discovery of what’s happening right under their noses but they say nothing as Fredo gets dressed and flees, but not until he hears Lise jealously tell him that Gwen made love to two strange boys on the beach who boasted to her about it. This breaks up their friendship and also her relationship with Fredo, as Gwen asks Lise to leave her house. The clueless parents don’t even attempt to talk to their daughter about what just happened.

The film badly breaks down as the girls both start acting irrational and this leads to a totally unbelievable crisis and conclusion. It was as if the script didn’t believe in its ideas anymore and now had to manufacture a fancifully melodramatic scenario involving Gwen’s dad and the emotionally ripped apart Lise. It was an ill-advised ending that came out of the blue and doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. It’s hard to fathom what the filmmaker wanted to say about that incident that couldn’t have been expressed without such needless action. The first part of the film was exploratory of the young girls immaturity, growing pangs and heartfelt emotions they were experiencing as they were growing up fast, and that part of the story held one’s interest. But any explanation of what transpires at the end is not helped by the misleading but catchy title, because both girls can swim. I would hazard a guess that this theme about learning to stay afloat relates to how the girls can’t think their way through things but only act on an impulse, as their swimming (life experiences) is something they need further lessons on. But by letting both girls off the hook for their problematic behavior and trying to pin most of the blame for their troubles on both their fathers — seems too easy of a response to understand how reckless Gwen is and how puzzling Lise is. And, by not further developing the homoerotic nature of their relationship so it could be viewed in a clearer light, it leaves the film blurred. It’s a film about adolescent sexual confusion that sets the table for some interesting cuisine to be served, but when it comes dinner time the meal is not served properly.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”