11th Sep2018

‘Cold Water’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, László Szabó, Smaïl Mekki | Written and Directed by Olivier Assayas


This 1994 film from Olivier Assayas (known recently for Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper) ends ambiguously, with a blank piece of paper. It’s an image that aptly sums up this intriguing yet frustrating film as a whole: a work of countless questions and precious few answers, as esoteric as something from the 1970s period of its setting. It’s like a Michelangelo Antonioni art piece, except shot by John Cassavetes. If we’re meant to come away feeling as ill-informed as its teenage antiheroes then I guess Cold Water has succeeded as art.

The production design and the film stock produces a stunning evocation of the early ‘70s. We’re never told the time period explicitly – we just know. Early on, Assayas shoots with handheld immediacy, employing close-ups and deliberately awkward framing, often putting objects and doorframes out of focus in the foreground. We are truly within the world of people who don’t quite fit.

The story is ostensibly about the chaotic teenagehood of two lovers, Christine and Gilles. Christine has an abusive father (so she says) who wants to send her off to a clinic for troubled children. And he probably will get custody because her mother is a neglectful Scientologist who married an Arab named Mourad. This is the ‘70s, remember.

Christine is spiky and defensive. After being caught shoplifting (a moment of foreshadowing that’s craftily mirrored in the film’s final moments), she tells a terrible tale about being sexually assaulted by the security guard. But it’s just her “unique” sense of humour. Gilles’ family life is comparatively settled. His dad is relatively reasonable. Loving, even. But Gilles is still going mad, believing himself to be the victim of his tutors, and buying dynamite from a kid at school, as you do. Fed up of declining grades and their son’s declining mood, Gilles’ parents decide that he should go to boarding school. Both sets of parents have given up, it seems. Christine and Gilles have to go it alone.

It’s like a raw, socio-realist rendition of Romeo & Juliet: childish lovers being denied their mutually-assured happiness. But how much insight are we really given into these difficult teens? We see them acting out but communicating little. The one time Christine truly “reveals” herself, it’s open to interpretation (not to mention accusations of dubious arthouse softcore).

For the most part, being young is made to look very grotty, almost to the point of parody. The last third of the film is taken up by a frankly grim-faced high school party. We get a solid couple of minutes burning chairs, and three or four music sequences featuring contemporary rock; virtually the whole of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” while the kids smoke resin. It’s youth as a naturally destructive force. The aftermath of the party is like something from Mick Jackson’s Threads, with kids huddled in the cold, eating ravioli out of a can. The lack of teen energy throughout is quite laughable. It’s also an antidote to the carefree, Free Love cliché of the period.

The film begins with Gilles’ grandma telling the story of the Hungarian Revolution. The overthrowing of that government began with student protests. Without a laudable target for their anger, ‘kids of today’ are destined to be rebels without a cause. Cold Water could refer, then, to the shock of grown-up reality; of trying to survive in a world outside that of responsible adults – whether they are parents, teachers or social services – who are both the cause but ultimately the cure for many a teenage woe.

Apparently, Assayas’ film was expanded from an idea for a sub-hour short. Indeed, it’s questionable whether there’s enough narrative meat to maintain a full feature film. But it’s a well-made, well-played piece about desolate youth – the absolute counterpoint to the frothy teen fantasies that dominated the previous decade, the 1980s. So, it’s not much fun, and frankly a bit overstretched, but it’s an accomplished early work from a vital modern filmmaker.

Extras include separate 2018 interviews with Assayas and DOP Denis Lenoir; and a 1994 French TV programme featuring Assayas, Ledoyen and Fouquet.

Cold Water is out on Criterion Blu-ray from 10th September 2018.


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