A prescient work that introduces themes and imagery (particularly youth, nostalgia and urban angst) that have become central to Olivier Assayas’ oeuvre.
By Peg Aloi
The Brattle Theatre presents a weekend long engagement of Olivier Assayas’ 1994 masterpiece Cold Water (L’eau froide). For those filmgoers familiar only with the director’s more recent films such as Personal Shopper or The Clouds of Sils Maria (both featuring Kristen Stewart), Cold Water is a prescient work that introduces themes and imagery (particularly youth, nostalgia, and urban angst) that have become central to Assayas’ oeuvre. The film is being presented in a new reissue, enjoying a proper US release after finally having secured the rights to its excellent soundtrack. American audiences should take the opportunity to discover this little-seen gem for themselves.
The film was first realized as an hour-long episode for French television, as part of a project that also commissioned filmmakers Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Cédric Kahn, and André Téchiné. Each filmmaker was asked to create a story portraying the adolescent experience occurring anywhere between the 1960s and 1990s; other edicts included using popular music from the era, and one significant party scene. Assayas’ film is set in 1973, and centers on a teenage couple, Christine (Virginie Ledyoyen, also seen in Late August, Early September) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet). Christine comes from a working class divorced family; she is currently dealing with her parents competing for custody of her. She’s already been in a psychiatric facility; her mother has threatened to have her returned there. Gilles’ parents are also divorced, but wealthy, and his father is supportive, though frustrated with Gilles’ poor performance in school and disciplinary problems.
The two wander through a department store, randomly shoplifting, but Gilles’ scheme to sell LPs at school lands Christine in trouble with the law. She casually tells a police officer that the store detective sexually assaulted her; the cop is sympathetic, but can’t help her with the custody dilemma. When Gilles’ teacher catches him not paying attention in class, and failing to do the required reading, he’s chastised and thrown out. He later buys explosives, but it’s not clear who or what they’re intended for; in a more contemporary context, that might be seen as the act of a sociopath bent on wreaking destruction. But, in Assayas’ microcosm of a troubled society, mayhem comes naturally: it is just another part of a larger vision of the youth-driven turmoil that defined the age.
Cold Water’s mise en scène feels natural and effortless, but there are lyrical moments that haunt and linger. Some of the film’s set pieces are uniquely stunning. In one scene Gilles walks his bicycle through the forest; its blue-green palette is diffused by mist, an image anchored by the brown autumn leaves underfoot. The dim headlamp on his bike flickers as he recites an Allen Ginsberg poem from memory, after first glancing at a paperback book in his pocket — which undercuts the notion that he is a poor student, or uninterested in literature.
The next shot shows Christine by a fire, in a wool sweater, fidgeting as the camera proceeds to move through a party that’s taking place both indoors and outdoors (echoing her liminal situation): the fireplace is juxtaposed with fires in trash cans, placed just outside a vacant, crumbling chateau in the countryside. Janis Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee” is playing on a portable record player. The diegetic music in this extended party scene is definitive of its era, but also illuminates the action and the characters’ inner lives. I can’t recall a film where popular music has ever been used to such perfect impact. The camera’s long, elegant takes follow Christine, who looks unkempt and exhausted, as she weaves amid her peers who are dancing, smoking, sorting through LPs, and talking. The gritty vocals and the words “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” seem to be a fitting anthem for Christine’s struggle.
We learn that Christine escaped the juvenile psychiatric facility after only one day and made her way to the home of a friend, who then brought her to the party. She reacts to a girl trying to help her by lashing out violently, but her friends comfort her and she sits alone while the party goes on. Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” abruptly replaces a mellow Donovan song, and some raucous dancing happens. We see someone’s hands filling a wooden pipe with hashish and tobacco, and Cooper is abruptly removed from the turntable (we hear the record scratching) and replaced with Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” The pipe is passed around and puffed on by several long-haired, androgynous looking teens.
In terms of realism, this visual and musical moment is simple and plausible: who hasn’t been at a party where someone changed the music suddenly? Or it could be seen as brilliantly designed to offer a potent metaphor for adolescence: an expression of the constant tug between living in the moment and obsessing about mortality, the rebellion and decadence that signify anarchistic attempts to break free from conformity. So many moments in this party scene seem to be symbolic in this way: a group pours gasoline on a pile of sticks and throws more on before lighting an enormous, hastily constructed bonfire, which is later fed by old chairs being tossed through shattered windows. The viewer is reminded that there has rarely been a time as complex or dynamic as the early 1970s — culturally, politically, socially.
When Gilles arrives at the party he’s surprised that Christine is there; the two embrace, dancing slowly. I won’t spoil the remaining musical moments, but they include a line-up of perfectly-selected songs from Nico, Leonard Cohen, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Christine says she wants to escape to a rural farm where her school friend Chloe is living, a commune set up by her artist father. She makes it sound idyllic, but Gilles, used to creature comforts, is uneasy. The two set off on a journey that takes them to a snowy landscape. The film’s ending comes suddenly, landing with precision and mystery.
I first saw Cold Water as part of an Assayas retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive, around the time Demonlover (2002) was released. It has stayed with me ever since, one of those cinematic experiences that is deeply etched on my psyche, resonating with my own coming-of-age experiences. Music rights have been difficult to procure since that time, so movie has never had a proper US release. Boston filmgoers are indeed fortunate to be able to view this stunning film as it makes its long-awaited return.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.