Olivier Assayas’ 1994 Cold Water succeeds in not only being a brief portal into the doomed romance of two French teenagers deep in the throes of love, but also a deeply personal representation of a specific time in the director’s own adolescence.
Originally conceived as a 50-minute made-for-television episode, Cold Water, or L’eau Froide, is often thought of Assayas’ first film; it’s actually his fifth. However, it was the first of his films to garner widespread attention from within the industry. With Cold Water, Assayas produced something that was not just autobiographical, but almost a stand-in for his own interpretation of his past. Eventually the project blossomed into a feature film, pulling the director out of his restrictive self-imposed style and allowing him to thrive.
Cold Water is set in the 70s, but never really feels like a period piece, outside of the fashion and the allure of used vinyl records the two teens shoplift early on. Viewed today and seeing how much of this has come back into style, it almost feels timeless. It’s a film that is not too concerned with showcasing itself as an authentic imitation of the past; the past is rather just a backdrop to the relationships presented.
The film follows Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), two young rebellious teens who are at odds with the world around them. Gilles is flunking out of school and falling into the life of a delinquent, much to the chagrin of his affluent father. Christine is more of an afterthought to her splintered parents, who quickly send her to a clinic to seek mental help after she is caught shoplifting and refuses to answer the questions of an understanding policemen. Not only does Christine refuse to answer any questions, she lies about an officer sexually assaulting her.
Gilles and Christine both escape their surroundings and eventually meet up in the dark countryside, planning to run away in the morning to re-start their lives. In the meantime, they seek asylum from their woes by joining a raging party they stumble upon at an abandoned country house. The soundtrack to the desolate teenage party is rather epic, featuring early 70s American rock acts such as Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, Nico, and even Alice Cooper all in sinister fashion.
The reckless abandon of the couple is aptly encouraged by the haunting, atmospheric tracks roaring around the fire at the desolate, abandoned country home. Long shots of the party raging on touch on the feeling of poetic anarchy gone awry. It feels like the last night on earth. We catch glimpses of Christine and Gilles making out or dancing, as if the night only belongs to them. To them, in this moment in time, their love seems endless.
Eventually the partying teens begin to tear apart the abandoned house, burning chairs, frames, pieces of the house… whatever flammable objects they can get their hands on. It’s quite the sight; Assayas creates such a strong atmosphere with this sequence that it becomes the film’s most striking portion, and acts as its centerpiece. There is no explanation given of what it all really means, but it is quite the sight.
The overall mystery of the events that take place in Cold Water rests with the central characters, particularly Christine. She is perhaps not just antisocial, but disturbed; she rejects everything about her own life, and eventually rejects her partner in crime as well. She’s beautiful, but often hides behind her hair, shielding her eyes when she converses. Eventually, during the party scene, she cuts it herself with a pair of dull scissors. This action gives the impression that she is opening herself up, maybe even becoming vulnerable — but that sense of relief does not last.
Assayas centers the film’s focus on Christine’s thought processes, and the way she is always looking for an exit, but not an end. Her life isn’t miserable, but she certainly is. With Christine, Assayas concocts a mystery in Cold Water that has no answer — much like life.
Cold Water has long been unavailable in the United States due to the film’s music licensing issues, so other than from Assayas’ most devoted admirers, it has received little fanfare. Criterion has taken it upon itself for the first official American release, and it’s received a 4K transfer to boot. The film is updated with a brand new English translation, the original music is intact, and there’s a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for the Blu-ray.
Also included are new interviews with cinematographer Denis Lenoir, Assayas himself, and a clip from the French television program on Cold Water, featuring Assayas and actors Virginie Ledoyen and Cyprien Fouquet. The package also features an essay by critic Girish Shambu, discussing the film’s background and the autobiographical nature of Cold Water. By Criterion’s standards, it’s a relatively low-key release. However given the circumstances, it’s probably the most comprehensive release possible for a film that time almost forgot. If you enjoy glimpses into the lives of doomed young lovers, Cold Water is a refreshing and invigorating watch.