Criterion Prediction #104: Cold Water, by Alexander Miller
Title: Cold Water a.k.a. L’eau froide
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet, László Szabó, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Dominique Faysse
Synopsis: Christine and Gilles are two sixteen-year-old lovers in 1972 Paris; they fight with their parents, get in trouble in school, and can’t see beyond the scope of their romance. However, when Christine is arrested for shoplifting, her father sends her off to a boarding school for at-risk/emotionally troubled kids. Of course, young love won’t be curbed, and Christine escapes to be with Gilles who decide to run away.
Critique: Aside from being one of the most exciting and international filmmakers, Olivier Assayas puts out a brilliantly contrasted series of aesthetic bullet points that solidify his place as a modern artist. His laurels are similar to the luminaries of French cinema, having – like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut – served as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma before turning to directing. But his internalized politics and erratic bursts of aesthetic energy align him outside the stratosphere of any relative film movements.
As a director, his sense of style is dormant but busily present in the literal action of every scene; his cinema could be best described as a punk-infused rewrite of the nouvelle vague doctrine – instead of rejecting the form of his forebearers, he’s riding his creative insight with instinctual range and depth.
Regarding genre, this could be described as a coming-of-age story. However, the narrative of young love and youthful rebellion isn’t a springboard to lens a romanticized mishmash of nostalgia and cultural glad handing. Assayas taps into an emotional core, etching out meaning and poignancy in particular moments. Cold Water feels personal, but never saccharine; it deftly maneuvers youthful apprehension and intuitively expresses the spirited recklessness of young love the film boasts a fully formed identity.
Assayas has said that when he directs, he likes to feel like he’s creatively out of control, and this rationale explains the caustic energy running through the film. The sense of motion enlivens subtle sentiments and high dramatic tension. It’s reminiscent of Bergman’s intimate portraiture style but unmoored in a street-hewn verite execution.
The specificity of hand-to-hand mechanics plays out with Bressonian (an idol of Assayas) intonations, shifting the focus in a way that can’t help but evoke images from L’argent and Pickpocket.
Always in motion, there’s a tragic speed to the drama, as well as room for affection as the cultural import is represented through the use of music, a driving force at the heart of the feature. While lazier genre counterparts are content to slum with slapdash montages while classic rock tracks are cheaply used to evoke
Cold Water presents music in real time, some unforgettable images take place while Christine, in a depressive state, wanders through a party in an abandoned chateau hacks her hair off while Janis Joplin’s howling rendition of “Me & Bobby McGee” is playing. It’s long, difficult and its juxtaposition has obvious significance bearing a cruel irony of personal freedom and the tumult of adolescence. Music has a deliberate but unimposing purpose; some tracks play out, but we also hear the needle skip when someone changes the record from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” to Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. The transition is marked by the loading and passing of a hash pipe. You don’t want anything “too intense” playing when you’re getting high.
The rituals and anxieties of adolescence have such a dedicated feeling in that it doesn’t explain or rationalize its characters’ feelings. Assayas seems to understand that it’s all the more consequential to depict the inherent spirit of angst and defiance; who hasn’t fought with their parents, do something irrational because of their lover, or let loose and dance around a bonfire with their friends?
Coming of age dramas are, more often than not, a long walk to a dry well, but Cold Water is evidence that its director has the unique ability to channel a generational sense of awareness. This earlier feature connects with the past and present, and there’s a place for it among the larger conversation of the directors ever growing oeuvre, which has matured with a life of its own. Olivier Assayas forged a context within his own body of work. In 1994, he’s concerned with adolescence; lately, he’s looking past life with his most recent work Personal Shopper.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The Criterion Collection has been steadily doing Assayas justice since 2010 with their release of Summer Hours, followed by Carlos, Clouds of Sils Maria, and the eagerly awaited Personal Shopper. While it would be nice if Criterion went all in with Assayas (I’d love to see Demonlover, Clean, and Irma Vep in the collection), his earlier movies, namely Cold Water, are comparatively difficult to come by, and with the director’s expanding profile, it’s bound to generate more interest in his work.
Cold Water is the subject of forums, and my only concern with its potential inclusion (and restoration) is that collaborating cinematographer Denis Lenoir is rumored to have used a silver retention process, which has caused the colors to drain; Criterion’s “director’s approved” seal is reassuring, but I hope the dark color palette of the films isn’t compromised.