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With: Isild Le Besco, Karen Alyx, Pascale Bussières, Pascal Elso, Marie Rivière, Yelda Reynaud, Sandrine Blancke, Julien Cottereau, Dominique Lacarrière
Written by: Christophe Honoré, Anne-Sophie Birot
Directed by: Anne-Sophie Birot
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 102
Date: 09/04/2000
IMDB

Girls Can't Swim (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sinking 'Swim'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anne-Sophie Birot's Girls Can't Swim takes an interesting approach to the coming-of-age/deteriorating friendship genre, of which this week's Me Without You, last summer's Ghost World and Jane Campion's classic Two Friends are the prime examples. Girls Can't Swim allows us to get to know the two girls at its center separately before they get together in the film's final third. Using this tactic, the film is able to move past the genre's typical characterizations: the shy, bookish type and the loose party girl. For a long time the film succeeds with its dark, delicate treatment of these characters and its unerring respect for them. But then comes the weirdly shocking and wholly inappropriate ending that makes no sense at all. It casts a pall over the whole film, and you leave shaking your head.

The film begins with the sensual Gwen (Isild Le Besco of the upcoming film Sade). She's a gangly blonde who seems to have grown into half her body but not the other half just yet. She possesses a radiant, joyous smile that can suddenly turn around into the greatest suffering and torture imaginable. It's summer, and Gwen is staying at a beach house with her parents. Her father is an unemployed fisherman who likes nothing more than watching TV, lying around and drinking beer. Her mother is more responsible and can barely keep the fa├žade of a happy family going. Usually Gwen's best friend Lise (Karen Alyx) comes to stay with them, but this summer she has to attend summer school. So Gwen lands a lanky boyfriend and discovers sex for the first time.

In the film's second third, we meet Lise for the first time. She's been lying to Gwen in her letters, saying that she's gone to the mountains with her father, when in fact her father has recently died. She seems obsessed with trying out a tight-fitting bathing suit on her newly developed form. (She thinks Gwen will be wearing one just like it.) In essence, each girl believes that the other has it better. When the girls finally get together, they find that things don't seem quite right. Not only has Gwen been inducted into the sex club, but she doesn't wear a bathing suit at all -- preferring to go topless.

We all remember that painful moment when a close friend experiences sex before we do and we feel left out like we've never felt left out before. Girls Can't Swim perfectly captures that moment and uses it as the pivot for the downfall and collapse of the friendship. To say the least, Lise overreacts just a little bit.

I very much admired the film's ability to capture the textures of summer -- the overcast heat, the boredom, the possibilities of freedom, as well as the sad acceptance of another chapter of life ending. In addition, the two performances are sharply drawn, and the film allows them to grow at a natural rate. We get to know them well over a relatively short amount of time. But that ending -- which I won't reveal -- felt like such a betrayal. I tried to fit it to the rest of the story both thematically and logically, and it just doesn't go. It's too abrupt and dark and doesn't solve anything. And it's so blatantly wrong that it goes a long way toward ruining all the good work that had been done up to that point. Maybe with a warning, however, audiences will be able to enjoy the majority of the film without being too disappointed by the ending. It's a shame that director Birot did not put more thought into why she needed to go down such a road.

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