Combustible Celluloid
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With: Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet, László Szabó, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Jackie Berroyer, Dominique Faysse, Smaïl Mekki, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Ilona Györi, Renée Amzallag, Jérôme Simonin, Laetitia Lemerle, Alexandra Yonnet, Caroline Doron, Laetitia Giraud
Written by: Olivier Assayas
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 92
Date: 05/04/2018

Cold Water (1994)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wet Blankets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Cold Water was the breakthrough feature for Olivier Assayas, a fascinating, undeniably talented, but chameleon-like French director. He started, not unlike the legendary members of the French New Wave, as a film critic, and then used his knowledge and understanding of film to become a filmmaker. His films range from ultra-modern experiments (Irma Vep) to very old-fashioned character studies (Summer Hours), and --like his recent works Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper -- Cold Water wonderfully bridges the gap between them.

Opening at San Francisco's Roxie Theater and elsewhere, Cold Water was made in 1994 and shown in many film festivals, including Cannes and New York, but was never released in the U.S. This was largely due to complex issues surrounding the music rights. The movie is set in 1972, and during an all-night party sequence, teens play an amazing array of records by Leonard Cohen, Alice Cooper, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Donovan, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Nico, Roxy Music, and Uriah Heep, making up what surely would have been one of the best soundtrack LPs of the 1990s, but apparently caused something of a nightmare on paper.

The movie follows two young people living on the outskirts of Paris. Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) is spoiled and sullen and failing at school. There's a strong disconnect between he and his single father (Laszlo Szabo), who is considering boarding school for his son. Gilles and the beautiful, waifish Christine (then up-and-comer Virginie Ledoyen) steal a batch of records from a music shop (the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and Deep Purple's Machine Head among the stack) to sell. But they are caught and Christine's parents — her mother is a Scientologist — send her to a kind of nursing clinic.

After swallowing some meds, she breaks out and attends an all-night party in an abandoned house in the countryside. But she's distraught and decides to cut her hair; magically, this leaves her with a fetching hairdo that allows sly locks of hair to drape over her eyes, between which she can gaze up coyly. Her angry father searches for her at the party, and her mother has a moving exchange with Gilles, but they leave empty-handed.

This party sequence is the film's tour-de-force, and takes up the majority of the running time. It includes the aforementioned records, dancing, drugs, a bonfire, etc., all shown with Assayas's roving camera and no apparent rhyme or reason. It's a great bit of sustained, plotless, experimental filmmaking, and a perfect counterculture moment (the film was originally commissioned as part of a TV series about filmmakers and their childhood years, but Assayas expanded it). Assayas prefers to shoot close-in, with an almost claustrophobic touch, as if indicating that no one here is capable of seeing a bigger picture. This is a movie that truly lives in the present moment.

Christine eventually talks Gilles into running away with her to a farm where artists live; there's no phone or electricity or running water, but there is a well (presumably the "cold water" of the title). She has lied to him about her knowledge of the place, and we never see it. The movie ends with the two young lovers on the road, sleeping roughly on the ground and waking up in the chilly morning. Their relationship is clearly based more on mutual alienation than on anything resembling love. It's understandably difficult to convey this concept without making a dreary film, but Assayas has managed to create a palpable, restless yearning under his aloof characters, and their little flickers of feeling and doubt and joy are genuinely touching.

In 2018, the Criterion Collection released a new Blu-ray of this restored version of the film, joining Assayas's other films on the label: Summer Hours (2008), Carlos (2010), Clouds of Sils Maria (2015), and Personal Shopper (2017). It includes a brand-new 15-minute interview with the director (in English), a new 11-minute interview with cinematographer Denis Lenoir (also in English), and a 12-minute excerpt from a 1994 TV interview with Assayas and his two lead actors. It may be hard to judge the picture, since it's so deliberately grainy and aged, but the colors seem just right, and there's a satisfying amount of grain. The sound, especially when the rock records begin blaring, is glorious.

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