3 out of 5 stars

The idea for Cold Water began with producer Chantal Poupaud who, whilst observing her two sons, aged 14 and 18, began reminiscing about her own teenage experience and commonalities that seem to span the decades. Her concept was to invite different filmmakers to supply a segment for a series of short TV Movies that would explore their own adolescence. Each part would be standalone, but have several prescribed ingredients, including a party scene and music to link it to the specific year in which the story would be set.

The result was the TV series Tous les Garçons et les Filles de leur Âge (All Boys and Girls their Age), which consisted of nine films, all shot on 16mm by different directors, comparing and contrasting the teen experience of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Ahead of its television broadcast in autumn 1994, three of the directors reworked their shorts into feature-length versions for presentation at the Cannes Film Festival and a limited cinema release.

These were Wild Reeds by André Téchiné (the most experienced of the directors involved), Happiness by Cédric Kahn, and The Blank Page (which Olivier Assayas retitled Cold Water for its extended theatrical cut). Of the three, Assayas was the director that fully embraced 16mm, rather than being frustrated by the limitations of the format. He found it much easier to shoot from the shoulder and dispensed with dollies entirely, creating an intimate documentary feel that would inform the rest of his career.

The trilogy was met with very positive critical response, as was the TV series when broadcast. The most lauded aspect was the casting of so much fresh talent. The productions used young actors and actresses with little or no experience, bringing with them an emotional truth that harked back to the naturalistic intentions of 1960s cinéma vérité.

For Cold Water, Assayas cast ‘proper’ established actors to play the adult roles and intended all the kids to be played by real teenagers with little or no experience. Non-actor Cyprien Fouquet plays the quiet yet angst-ridden Gilles, the avatar of Assayas’s own youth, but reluctantly he cast Virginie Ledoyen as Christine in the lead role. She’d already appeared in half-a-dozen films after beginning her career in front of the lens as a model since the age of two.

The casting worked out perfectly. In contrast to the other teenagers, who behaved naturally because they had never acted, Ledoyen was so comfortable with the camera she was totally at ease. The part earned her the second of three nominations for the César Award for ‘Most Promising Actress’. She is a revelation here and certainly a factor in pulling such a convincing performance out of her co-star, Fouquet.

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Assayas wrote Cold Water using a set of songs to guide the screenplay, or as he put it, “the songs were the screenplay.” The story is broadly autobiographical but blends his real memories with the sort of imagined scenarios that the songs had inspired in his teenage mind. He seeks an emotional truth through a poetic narrative.

The key moment from Assayas teenage years is played out as Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) fights with his younger brother (Mathieu Mardoukhaev) over control of a portable radio. In their tussle, the aerial comes loose and as they screw it back into place, they ‘accidentally’ tune in to Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” which stops them both in their tracks and they simply listen, dumbfounded. Assayas has described how he had been affected by hearing the song for the first time. Just a few years after the student uprisings and the Paris riots of 1968, when the liberties of the sixties seemed to be fading away, the sound had struck him as full of an energy that promised a more optimistic future.

There’s a beautifully played scene in a supermarket when Gilles and Christine talk about their respective woes. Both are from broken homes and clearly their budding romance is the only stabilising factor in the turmoil of their lives. Gilles shoplifts a bunch of LPs, Credence Clearwater Revival, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, among them, but this event is the catalyst for the whole narrative that follows…

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Although set in 1972, Assayas had no qualms about shooting the scene in a 1990s supermarket, which miraculously stocks collectable vinyl from 1972. This ‘continuity error’ only serves to heighten the effect of nostalgia and timelessness throughout the rest of the film as it becomes clear that we are looking back on the past through the lens of memory. This is an early hint at the postmodern punk approach that will characterise many of Assayas’ later works.

As the store detectives close in, the two teens make a run for it. Gilles gets away, but Christine runs into a closed glass door, shattering it, and is captured. This leads to the separation of the young lovers, as Christine is packed off to a psychiatric clinic and preparations get underway to send Gilles to a strict boarding school.

In the meantime, Gilles makes use of a sort of black market teen economy where shoplifting starts the money chain. Gilles sells his stolen stash of records for cash, and having been inspired by Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”, uses cash to buy explosives… a fine example of the (usually) apocryphal stories that seem to haunt most schools, going on my limited experience. Assayas may be making things a bit more extreme than they really were, but if he didn’t, it would end up as boring as school really was.

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The best way to approach Cold Water is to think of it as an extended music video. A cinematic love-letter to the music and lyrics that filled his adolescent emptiness with stories and poetic notions to fuel young fantasies. I’m of the same generation that can remember Alice Cooper’s pre-punk classic “School’s Out” sounding dangerously rebellious. On hearing the line “school’s been blown to pieces”, I wasn’t alone in thinking “wow, wouldn’t that be great?”—a bit like the opening scenes of John Boorman’s nostalgic biopic Hope and Glory (1987) when as a boy he arrives for school to find nothing but a bombed-out pile of rubble, to which he responds by looking skyward and shouting “thank you, Adolph!”

Schools have perennially represented the traditions and status quo of the preceding generation. Gilles’s French literature teacher is reading sections from The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to his class. The philosopher Rousseau was a major influence on both the Enlightenment and Romantic movements and reformed the whole approach to Education. He basically introduced the first notion of the teenager being a transitory stage, from a childhood governed by parental influence, instinct and emotional impulses, into an actuated individual with a stronger faculty of reason but lacking the life experience to apply it effectively.

It’s no accident that Assayas makes this overt reference to Rousseau who thought the purpose of education should be to divert and occupy confusing emotional impulses by giving them an outlet in practical subjects, such as carpentry or sport, whilst focussing on teaching the ability to reason. He famously stated that “if children understood how to reason they would not need to be educated.”

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Rousseau broke down the development of a child into stages of under-12, 12-16, and over-16 when the child will start to become an adult. He promoted the idea that a good school should provide a safe environment for a child to make mistakes, and then learn through the consequences of their actions, and that corporal punishment had no place in the classroom. For his time, this was possibly his most radical idea. So, it’s ironic that the teacher is enraged, not because Gilles is being noisy or disruptive, but because Gilles is not paying attention to his reading of Rousseau and ejects him from the class with physical and verbal abuse.

We find out soon after that Gilles is indeed very interested in literature, but of the more modern variety. He is cycling through woodland on a misty night when he pauses to light a cigarette and glance at the paperback copy of Planet News he carries. After just a moment’s revision, he re-pockets the book and remounts his bike. As he continues along a lonely country road, he loudly recites a section of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Wichita Vortex Sutra, about the vulnerability of the individual in the modern world, and of individuality itself:

Vortex of telephone radio aircraft assembly frame ammunition petroleum nightclub Newspaper streets illuminated by Bright EMPTINESS.

At which point, Gilles has pedalled off into the bright emptiness of the obscuring fog. A clear metaphor of his nebulous, unknowable future and a visual interpretation of the poem if it were transferred from the roads of Kansas to a country lane in rural France. This kind of multilayered meaning has become characteristic of Assayas’ approach and fully matured two years later in his astonishing arthouse classic Irma Vep (1996).

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Another scene that Assayas maintains is directly lifted from his own past is a conversation that Gilles had with his father (László Szabó). It starts out as a discussion about the portrayal of suffering in the paintings of Caravaggio and escalates into an argument about school grades and delinquent behaviour. Szabó is a character actor who already had a long film career beginning in the early 1950s, predominantly in bit-parts, and fittingly is of Hungarian origin, as was Assayas’ mother.

He also wrote and directed a handful of little known French-language, and Hungarian thrillers, including Zig-Zig (1970) and White Gloves of the Killer (1973). The scene is very well played, and the young newcomer holds his own opposite the veteran in an intimately intense exchange. Apparently, the scene was filmed twice in its entirety: once with the camera in place of the father, following the son, and again the other way around. This was a method made possible by the 16mm camera and gave Assayas plenty of freedom to cut and orchestrate the pace of editing.

This scene highlights the divide between the parents and the teenagers. Both sets of parents are shown to be self-obsessed and from the point of view of their teenage charges, and possibly their own teenage selves, failures. Christine’s estranged father (Jackie Berroyer) is beleaguered by his job in a struggling hardware store. After the divorce, he was awarded custody, but Christine would rather be with her mother (Dominique Faysse), who’s now dating Mourad (Smaïl Mekki). As Christine puts it, “he’s an Arab who works in a betting shop and they’re both Scientologists—no court would give her custody!”

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It’s revealed that Mourad had attained his teenage dream of being a footballer, but that career had recently ended with no dream to replace it. Gilles’ father is educated, well-off, but seems equally unhappy. Is this really all that adulthood can promise? The difference in parental background, and gender, appears to have an affect on how the teenagers are treated. Christine is sent to a psychiatric clinic and medicated. Gilles will be sent to a private boarding school to learn discipline.

Things come to a head when Christine runs away from the clinic and finds Gilles at a party in an abandoned Chateau, somewhere on the edge of the woods. The party makes up a good chunk of the film and we’re treated to a playlist of songs that are allowed to play through uninterrupted. There’s Janis Joplin’s rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” (“I’d trade all of my tomorrows, for a single yesterday / To be holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine”) the lyric that seems to have the strongest resonance with the events in the film.

We hear Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (“That long black cloud is comin’ down”) as a group of friends prepare and share a well-packed ‘chillum’ hash-pipe, there is no dialogue, just the occasional cough. Beautiful use of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” (“You who wish to conquer pain / You must learn what makes me kind / The crumbs of love that you offer me / They’re the crumbs I’ve left behind”)—chills… A nihilist euphoria of destruction to the Creedence Clearwater Revival track “Up Around the Bend” (“There’s a place up ahead and I’m goin’ just as fast as my feet can fly / Come away, come away if you’re goin’, leave the sinkin’ ship behind”). And finally a desolate come-down to Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” (“Identify my destiny / Revive the living dream”).

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If the viewer is of the right age and finds connection with these songs, it’s a highly effective and emotive passage. It encourages us to ponder what songs would be the soundtrack to our own youth… It’s also around this time, about an hour in, that we start to feel a creeping sensation of dread.

The kids are seen to indulge in all the stereotypical teenage ‘bad behaviour’ that the older generation might expect of them, but they are also shown to really care and look out for each other. When Christine shares her plan to run away with Gilles, in search of an artists’ colony that she says could be their haven, the generosity of those around them is touching. They’re given money and warm clothes to aid them in their escape attempt. Yet there’s now a feeling of inevitability as we head into the final act and spiral down to a somewhat tragic conclusion.

Cold Water is an evocative, poignant tribute to the bittersweet desolation of youth. It’s beautiful, unexpectedly engaging, and at times surprisingly affecting. Some of its narrative threads remain inconclusive or wholly unrealised, but the same could be said of those teenage hopes and dreams. Ultimately, it seems the kids want to say so much, but are denied a voice—they’re a blank page, yet cannot find the words to fill it… it delicately deals with that life-stage when adolescents venture out from the environment of their up-bringing and begin to take responsibility for their own destinies. It’s concerned with the concerns of growing up—the end of childhood, the challenge of finding oneself amongst others. The angst often concealed, within, under the surface, misunderstood… because we, as adults, sometimes choose to forget that the ‘folly of youth’ is simply bravado.

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Director-approved Blu-ray Special Edition Features:

I realise the rights are already enough of a minefield because of the music licensing, but it would’ve been great to have the broadcast episode ‘short version’ as comparison. I’m guessing there just would have been less space between the dialogued scenes, which I’m sure would have been detrimental to the overall poignancy, making it move akin to an ‘EastEnders shouty soap opera’, after all, those teenage years are made up of a lot of space, walking or bicycling from A-B, laying down listening to music, or sitting through long silences. I may never know because this is not included among the extras…

  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director Olivier Assayas, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It almost seems superfluous to go to all that effort for a Super-16mm print, but it does bring out the grain and colour palette beautifully, giving the most authentic experience of the medium without actually lacing up your own projector. The tonal qualities and gorgeous handling of low-light shots really lends a sort of 1970s home movie vibe that manages to look like a memory, in a sort of poetic way. Besides, the print had apparently been neglected and had deteriorated significantly over the decades, so some sort of restoration was necessary, and why not pull out the stops and make a superb job of that?
  • New interview with Assayas – ‘Like A Polaroid’. Instead of an audio commentary, we have a 15-minute interview with Olivier Assayas in which he fills in the production background and explains some of the direct connections with his own teenage years. He also points out how much of an achievement it was to produce a feature film on a four-week schedule and how much he enjoyed the energy of working with a young cast of non-actors… he believes the shoot itself should be an artistic happening and is as valid as the finished film.
  • New interview with cinematographer Denis Lenoir. An 11-minute talk from the veteran Director of Photography who’d also worked with Olivier Assayas on his debut feature Désordre (1986). He praises Assayas as a director, giving us plenty of technical info about how Assayas innovated the single camera shoot and particularly how the complex party scene was blocked-out and filmed.
  • Excerpt from a 1994 French television programme on the film featuring Assayas and actors Virginie Ledoyen and Cyprien Fouquet. Basically an archival recording of their panel interview for the Cannes Film Festival presentation of Cold Water where all three come across as genuine, slightly nervous and endearing whilst fielding some in-depth questioning.
  • New English subtitle translation.
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Girish Shambu.

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Olivier Assayas.
starring: Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet & Jackie Berroyer.