Cold Water

(L'eau froide, Olivier Assayas, France, 1994)


Cold Water is part of a remarkable series made for French TV titled (after Françoise Hardy’s classic pop song) “All the Boys and Girls of Their Time”. Other highlights of the series include André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds (1994), Claire Denis’ U.S. Go Home (1994), Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta et moi (1994) and Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ‘60s in Brussels (1994) – an incredible critical mass of modern talent. Taken as a whole, the series is the summit of what could rightly be called the art teen movie.


All the films unfold in very tight time frames: usually two or so days, before and after an obligatory party scene. In all the films (except Travolta et moi) there is a “morning after” moment or situation set in the dawn light. Doubtless, this close unfolding of time relates to the sense that these are miniaturist, intimist films. It also, in various ways, relates to the aura of a certain apoliticism common to all entries in the series (as Positif disapprovingly remarked at the time): we stay close to the ground of these kids and their wanderings, not really getting out to any wider social contexts. But, in fact, there’s a great deal here about family oppression, the daily grind of work, stultifying suburbia.


Akerman’s is the simplest of the bunch, and Denis’ the most complex. Olivier Assayas’ contribution Cold Water is a mixed bag – compelling and hypnotic, brilliantly crafted in many respects; but also occasionally empty, contrived, pretentious.


I wondered aloud after seeing the first of the series (Travolta et moi): will there ever be a French teen movie where the central teens do not quote Rimbaud, Nietzsche or suchlike? The answer seems to be: No! This tic appears to be an unnegotiable part of the French artist/intellectual’s self-image. In Akerman, the heroine quotes the “Kierkegaard guy”; the extraodinary figure of the brother (Grégorie Colin) in U.S. Go Home spouts Senaca’s “On the Brevity of Life” in the opening shot (war metaphors for living); and in Cold Water – this the weirdest one of all – the young hero yells out (almost completely incomprehensibly) a Ginsberg poem as he wheels around in the blue, forest-like darkness, eventually disappearing into the fog.


Assayas is a strange fish. You can see clearly in his films how he tries to bring together the extremes of his critical/cinephile tastes – on the one hand, a Bergman/Tarkovsky/Bresson legacy (the watery suicide of the heroine is Bressonian, as are the L'Argent-type shots following the path of an object from hand to hand: the stash of stolen records, or a bong – lovingly rendered in abstract, lyrical patterns of smoke and space).


On the other hand, there’s an energetic, American legacy: rock music with images as in Martin Scorsese (no incidental music here – in fact, in none of the films of the series, except a few grabs of lyrical clasical music surging up during street scenes of strolling in Akerman). And a Dark Side feel, which is also related to American exemplars (River’s Edge [1986], Over the Edge [1979], Rumble Fish [1983], Reckless [1984]).


Cold Water spooked me, it’s true. Something in the style and the mood: dank Bressonian pessimism; a general air of apocalypse (a rather cooler Geoffrey Wright feel); a countdown to death; the general air of void and irresolution. But the film also communicates, quite powerfully, an ominous, heavy, early ‘70s milieu: like in Ken Loach’s Family Life (1971), we witness the wash-up of an enormous post-’68 crackdown on the rebellious energies of youth by a massive deployment of the psy state apparatuses – i.e., putting troubled and troubling young kids into institutions and boarding schools. (Something evident, from a different angle, in Philippe Garrel’s 1982 masterpiece L'enfant secret.) There is an authentic sense of utterly freaked-out, horrible middle-class parents, clamping down on those energies released (genetically, as it were) in the ‘60s.


There are hardly any decent parent figures in the entire series, in fact. The father is virtually dismissed, symbolically and figurally, in the first shots of Portrait; parents are simply dreary, workaday-drudge figures in Travolta; only the Mum who sings along to Eric Burdon in U.S. Go Home seems OK, or is viewed at all sympathetically. But the parents in Cold Water are really dreadful, totally fucked up. They’re angry and hostile (like the Arab lover, Smaïl Mekki as as Mourad, although I really respect this guy and his fierce, aggro determination to gain some respect and fix his collapsing family situation); they’re clutching at their own ‘70s-style escape routes (gambling, Scientology).


The boy’s father (Laszlo Szabo) in Cold Water is an amazing study: so weighed down by miserabalism, worry and tension that he seems to have expanded inside his damn suit, from all this pressure. There’s no love, no generosity in his soul; everything is such a burden, torture and difficulty for him. No lightness, no play. A painful moment where he’s poring over a classical art book, and talks of how a figure represents suffering and pain (or some such) to him, and then interrogates his son: “Does it do that for you, too?” (The action is covered in a great shot: Assayas pans from the father, his hands, the book, over to the boy’s feet tracing out the length of the carpet!)


Cold Water, like all the films in the Boys and Girls series, has a deeply not-reconciled aspect. There’s a hopeless journey to nowhere, after Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) has shared her supposed secret with Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and led him out into the harsh wintry landscape ... And what a way to be left, out in the cold, with your girlfriend suicided, and a blank sheet of paper! (The shorter version prepared for TV is called Le page blanc.) Under this final image, Assayas fades down the sound of water: a devastating, eerie, Monte Hellman-like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) effect. In both Travolta et moi and Cold Water, we have the same melodramatic device: sex precedes death, and the one left behind is slapped in the face by the casual horror of it. In Travolta, the final shot shows her repeating, to the point of demented, zombie screaming, his last words to her: “Keep your eyes closed, wait until I get back”.


The spectacle of Christine’s plight in Cold Water is very affecting; an incredible pain of dysfunction. Assayas is good at showing not just her blocked, blank sullenness, but also her sudden bursts of passion and violence: the amazing moment when she starts plunging scissors (with which she has been cutting off her hair) into the arm of a girlfriend (played by Caroline Doron, this character is credited only as copine blessée – wounded pal!). Gilles is pretty blank by comparison – blankly alienated and casually delinquent into the bargain (there’s a splendidly nonchalant passage where he slices train carriage seats with this knife – and he also steals vinyl albums, like Akerman’s heroine). He is mainly the director’s self-portrait or self-reflection, like Téchiné’s alter ego in Wild Reeds: a young intellectual with “little experience”, meaning life experience, replaced by contact only with books, records, films ... But he never becomes a truly compelling character, only a foil for Christine.


To stay with Christine a moment longer: taken from another angle, this is where the Bressonian influence – maybe even a tiny touch Betty Blue-ish, female hysteria-wise – kicks in. I am thinking here of her final naked stroll to Gilles before suicide, reminiscent of nothing so much as the display of “sorrowful nudity” and the woman’s sacrifice unto the male sex-animal in Four Nights of a Dreamer. (Note, too, the presence of Isabelle Weingarten from that Bresson film as the stills photographer on this film, and in Assayas’ personal life at that time.)


There are strange things in Cold Water: such as the old, Eastern European woman (Illona Györi as Marie) who starts the film by talking about the traumas of war and history, like a figure from Akerman’s Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978). I take it that she is there to mark, even somewhat nostalgically, the “absence of the political” in this period, the distance of these teens from any real political consciousness or action. It seems a rather heavy-handed symbolic-dramatic gesture with which to open proceedings, but its dislocating effect, in narrative terms, is certainly felt.


There’s a Cassavetes-Ferrara element in Assayas’ style: very expressive passages with the camera panning as best it can inside flurries of physical action, such as the scene with Gilles and his little brother fighting over the radio (a whole confusion of sound here, as well); or the scissors scene already mentioned. Also like Cassavetes and Ferrara is Assayas’ studied lack of exposition; where the other films in the series sometimes rather laboriously set-up the party business (“Are you going to the party? Where shall we meet for the party?”, and so on), Cold Water just cuts to a marvellously disorienting shot of Christine standing by a fire ablaze in an oil drum-can, people milling indistinctly around, music blasting – she has escaped from the institution, as we learn retrospectively a little further on when Gilles arrives (of course, this is all rather callous, the way he has effectively landed her in the institution in the first place, and not tried to do a thing about it, and even starts trying to fob her off to anyone else at the party ... A Garrelian theme here, of the “man who doesn’t love enough” versus the woman who loves and dreams unto madness and death, as in J'entends plus la guitare [1991]). This is what Bérénice Reynaud has spoken of in Assayas’ work: ellipses, holes, lacunae ...


Cold Water is such a blue film! (Or, at least, it looked so in the print I viewed in 1995.) Presumably a concerted effect of the Super-16 cinematography, production design and lab work. This stylstic affectation has a slightly papered-on look about it, one of those mannered/mannerist, “all-over applied” strategies I have discussed in my work on mise en scène and film forms. It does give a coherence, a tonality, some kind of overall feel to the film – even if in a slightly contrived, even cheap way, as if the mood, the style, the entire regard has not been properly worked up through the actual dramatic details of staging scenes.


By the same token, Assayas can be an awesome stager, and in a stylistically integrated way. The long party scene (rightly already canonised) encapsulates my mixed feelings about the film as a whole. The music – I can’t now get that amazing Creedence Clearwater Revival song (“Up Around the Bend”), with its screechy guitar riff, out of my head, and Assayas loves it so much, he has it played twice in a row! And here’s a good, harsh American teen movie touch: none of the songs play through all the way to the end, there’s always an unbelievably loud, grating noise of the needle being torn off, another record immediately replacing it. Only the mournful, soulful Nico song, “Janitor of Lunacy” (surely a reference or homage to Garrel), gets played out integrally and conventionally, as detached soundtrack music, while the film really gears down to its low key. All the other songs are “worldised” in the classic manner made famous by Walter Murch in American Graffiti (1973). In fact, most of the films in the series use this worldising technique.


There’s a shot of a bonfire under the Creedence song – a great apocalyptic business where the teens, in this palatial but ominously vacated home, heap more and more chairs on the fire, eventually breaking windows and firing off flairs. They dance with Dionysian abandon, but the energy never really takes off – never becomes infectious or intoxicating as it would in an American version of such a scene. In this way, it seems that Assayas holds back, determined to stay with the regard of his mise en scène: always a little detached, surveying, not willing to surrender to the ecstasy of the conflagration, trying to retain some contemplative, even moral element somewhere ... This is what has often been said about Assayas, at least pre-Irma Vep: that he is a cool, young moralist, sometimes rather judgmental, even the maestro of a certain cinema of cruelty (heir, on this level, to Téchiné with whom he has collaborated).


Cruelty is obviously a crucial notion in French cinema; Serge Daney reflected upon it in his diary entries for the first issues of Trafic magazine. In these French art teen movies, cruelty is encapsulated in a certain version of the loss-of-innocence story – almost always linked to disillusionment (a brutal destruction of youthful idealism) or, worse still, to corruption, being initiated into perversity, preyed upon by elders. We can see this pattern – young people “deflowered” by older predatory ones – in Benoît Jacquot’s La désenchantée (1990), Catherine Breillat’s 36 fillette (1988) and especially Téchiné’s I Don’t Kiss (1991). In Denis, loss of innocence introduces the splits and partings, absolute experiences of Otherness, and sudden solitude after fragile (often botched) moments of contact, that seem absolutely formative of all experience (personal as well as social) for her cinema.


But what does Assayas have to be moralistic about when he looks at these kids? He is surely more “with” then than with their parents (the whole dark anger of the film points to that sympathetic identification). But it’s as if he reserves the right never, ultimately, to be “with” anyone. Hence a certain lack of compassion that hovers over the film, a certain embrace of that anomie it portrays.


This abstract principle that I sense in Assayas, and in his idea of himself as an artist – this principle of holding his gaze, reserving the right to regard everything coldly – is something that adds up, in my mind, to a certain (fairly male, I must say) posturing, a certain uprightness that doesn’t bend to the human complexities of the material (as Cassavetes does always bend). Assayas just will plunge us, as viewers, into the cold water of a hard life ... and hence the imposition of a Bressonian, despairing ending. I kept thinking of Alain Philippon's celebration of Jean-Claude Brisseau’s work in Sound and Fury (1988), for the regard that defined itself before similar scenes of teen violence, blind and wanton resistance, apocalyptic conflagrations: that movie is an important precursor of Cold Water in many ways.


At moments, I found myself wishing (a little irrationally and counterintuiively, it’s true) for just a little more naturalness in the Assayas mise en scène and regard. This caveat goes for certain things in Ferrara, too, especially Dangerous Game (1993): the simplest things (like kids smoking a joint in Cold Water) is rendered as a funereal, almost apocalyptic, or at any rate extraordinarily grave ritual, given an inordinate burden of grand stylisation (Rumble Fish does this, too).


However, you’ve got to grant Assayas the elegance of his regard. Many remarkably fluid shots, and a staging that allows certain tracings across groups of characters, from one gesture to another. The almost Ferrara-esque (via Crime Story) set-ups at the police interrogation (where Christine tells her wicked lie of being abused at the store where they stole from), the camera darting up and down to frame her in the tiny slit in the window. And that striking shot of someone showing up at the party, just walking through the frame (the camera picks up his movement, at a distance) and sitting alone on a step as eveyone else rages around the fire – the kind of detail that seems at first seems (USA-style) to be a plot-plant, but is ultimately there only for its “thick descriptive” power of observation. (Speaking of plot: explosions turn out to be the film’s big, de-spectacular, red herring: neither violence nor catharsis come from this lead in the film; in fact, the dynamite just seems to disappear altogether).


It’s notable that, in the various French teen films mentioned, absolutely none of them are a Bildungsroman about the “artist as young man or woman”, the birth or formation of an artist or filmmaker – as I’m sure one would have if it were a bunch of American (or Australian, or British – think of Terence Davies, John Duigan, Bob Ellis) directors doing the job. In the case of Akerman (perhaps the most closely autobiographical contribution to the Boys and Girls series), the period covered is, in fact, the time in which she made her first major film, the short Saute ma ville (1968). But, apart from one nondescript scene of her watching a movie, nothing is made of this vocation. And how on earth do the heroes of Cold Water or Travolta et moi ever become artist/filmmakers?


This lack of “developmental destiny” is part of that pervasively non-reconciled, refractory nature of these French films: the teen years are like some cut-off island, some strange incalculable memory, an impossibly enigmatic bed of so-called formative experience: hence the poignancy of Nico’s “These Days” at the end of U.S. Go Home, a song about precisely this kind of puzzlement, this kind of non-progression of life, registered upon looking back.


Postscript 2018: The above notes were made after viewing the Boys and Girls of Our Time instalments screened at the 1995 Melbourne Film Festival (Emilie Deleuze’s contribution was not programmed, and I missed Cedric Kahn’s.) Cold Water is a film whose aura has grown with time – and it remains, alongside Irma Vep (1996 – a different re-memorisation of 1960s culture), Assayas’ best work; I hold it in much higher esteem than I did in 1995. After effectively disappearing for several decades because of music copyright issues (which likely beset most contributions to the original TV series), Cold Water triumphantly came back into circulation in September 2018 via Criterion DVD/Blu-ray.

MORE Assayas: Demonlover, Irma Vep TV SERIES

© Adrian Martin June 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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