Blu-ray Review: Cold Water

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Olivier Assayas | CAST: Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet, László Szabó, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Dominique Faysse
RELEASE DATE: 9/11/18 | PRICE: DVD $20.67, Blu-ray $25.99
BONUSES: New interviews with Assayas and cinematographer Denis Lenoir; 1994 TV interview with Assayas and the film’s stars
SPECS: NR | 95 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.66:1 widescreen | 5.1 surround | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video  | Overall

Some films are best remembered for one scene. This is often the case with action movies, “high-concept comedies” and even porn. It rarely happens with dramas, but this early work by Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria) is definitely structured around one half-hour party sequence that is so kinetic it obscures the rest of the picture.

Cold Water (1994) is a semi-autobiographical character study of teenagers in early Seventies France that Assayas based on aspects of his own adolescence. It was his fifth feature, made two years before his breakthrough arthouse hit Irma Vep (1996). It’s thus a fascinating look at what he was doing in the period when he was still thought of as a critic turned filmmaker. (He had written regularly for Cahiers du Cinema.)

The film’s plot is familiar from dozens of such dramas: Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) is a high school student from a financially comfortable background who has little interest in school — he has his own literary interests — and is dating Christine (Virginie Ledoyen, Farewell, My Queen), a mentally ill girl whose parents are intent on placing her in an institution.

So far, so good — the film is mildly involving in its first half, but its plot offers little that is new, and Fouquet is an empty, Gallic version of Keanu Reeves. All eyes thus end up on Ledoyen, whose character isn’t really ever aware that she’s rebelling. At the midpoint of the film, however, the characters attend a party at an abandoned country house and trash the place while smoking pot and dancing to their favorite records. At that point, Cold Water begins in earnest.

For the next half hour, the film is a glorious evocation of the first post-Sixties generation, who are copying their elder brother and sisters while also forging their own identities, to a broad array of early Seventies rock. The sequence is a bravura set-piece that succeeds on several levels — the handheld camerawork is superb, the characters are sharply defined by their behavior and the music is indeed terrific.

Virginie Ledoyen in Cold Water

As the scene begins, Ledoyen is working up to a psychotic outburst and is then calmed down by her girlfriends. Her clueless boyfriend has to ward off her stepfather and mother (Christine by this point has run away from an institution), and the two young lovers ponder a move to an artists’ commune.

All this while million-selling hits and tracks from cult musicians are heard on a record player (replete with needle scratches between songs). The sounds move from famous rockers (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Alice Cooper) to UK/European icons (Roxy Music) to downbeat blues and country (Joplin, Dylan) and hypnotic drone-rock that American viewers will have a hard time believing any teens ever played at parties (Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” and Nico’s funereal “Janitor of Lunacy”).

The half-hour party sequence is so lively that the film feels somewhat tedious — and its conclusion, inevitable — when it’s over. Thankfully, there is only 20 minutes left at that point.

In the supplements included in the package, Assayas notes that he made a point of casting non-professionals as the teenage characters, with the exception of Ledoyen, who had already been in five films and had done TV work. He says he initially was resistant to casting a seasoned actress in the role, but he clearly did the right thing, as she gives the best performance in the picture.

The adult characters are, of course, people who are ineffectual but “mean well.” In this group, Godard veteran Laszlo Szabo (Made in USA) comes off the best, as Gilles’ concerned, arts-oriented father.

The three bonuses included in the package explore the making of the film and its status as a partly autobiographical piece by Assayas. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir, interviewed in English, discuses how the film was initially a telefilm slated to run one hour, which was part of a series of semi-autobiographical films by French filmmakers (which ran to nine films, directed by cineastes like Chantal Akerman, Andre Techine and Claire Denis).

He notes that the film contains numerous links to Assayas’s own adolescence, starting from the inclusion of a Hungarian maid in Gilles’ home (a detail from the filmmaker’s life).

As could be expected, Lenoir discusses the film’s beautifully smooth camerawork in some detail. While maintaining that “the director is responsible for the images,” he also notes how fluid the film’s visuals are, thanks to his handheld camerawork.

A 1994 TV interview with Assayas and his two stars is enlightening, in that it shows the filmmaker acting quite youthful, endearingly stammering and giggling as he imparts quite serious reflections on the film, describing it as an “historical reenactment” for its teenage cast. (He’s so buoyant one is amazed to find out he was 39 when he did that program.)

He also discusses how he took a budget intended for a telefilm and made a full-length feature, introducing a “B-movie aspect” to the proceedings.

The two stars of the film register as much calmer than Assayas, with Fouquet discussing the film being his first-ever performance and Ledoyen talking about tapping into her character’s troubled nature.

A newly-shot interview with a much more mature Assayas finds him describing the film as showing “the end of something, and the beginning of something else” — the latter, he admits, can’t be clearly labelled.

He again discusses how the project was turned into a feature-length film. He also naturally singles out the party sequence, which took five days to shoot, as the film’s centerpiece. Interestingly, he doesn’t address the matter of music rights, which reportedly kept the film from being distributed in the U.S. until nearly 25 years after its creation. (The music rights situation is mentioned only in the essay included in the package’s booklet.)

He maintains that the music works as a “narrative thread” in the film and that he considered the shoot of the sequence as an “art piece” unto itself. And, grounding himself in the period Cold Water is set (or, more accurately, five years earlier), he refers to the filming of the party sequence as a one-of-a-kind “happening.”


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”