The Early Films of Olivier Assayas: DISORDER (1986) • WINTER’S CHILD (1989)

French writer-director Olivier Assayas is capable of great things. Irma Vep (1996) is one of my favourite arthouse classics and Cold Water (1994) is a delicate, heart-rending period piece about teenage hopes and aspirations. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to view his first two movies, restored to their full glory on a new Blu-ray release from Arrow Academy. Perhaps I hoped for too much? I’m not saying they’re bad, but I wouldn’t have sat through them if it wasn’t for my high expectations of Assayas, which only compounds my disappointment…

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Disorder (1986)

I immediately perked up as this film opens with a Sherlockian violin melody and the composer’s name came up as Gabriel Yared. This was the same year as his fantastic score for Betty Blue (1986), which reminded me just how many great films French cinema produced in the mid-1980s. I was an avid cinemagoer and devourer of foreign films, in my early twenties… the same age as the principal cast in Désordre, Olivier Assayas’s debut feature, which I have to say passed me by back then.

In the visually complicated opening sequence (involving a crane shot from rooftop to street level on a rainy night), we meet Anne (Ann-Gisel Glass), Yvan (Wadeck Stanczak), and Henri (Lucas Belvaux) getting drunk in a parked car. Clearly, they’re intimate friends and already involved in some sort of messy love triangle. When they feel ready, they jimmy open the door of a music store they were parked outside and begin selecting suitable instruments.

The robbery is aborted when they’re interrupted at gunpoint by the proprietor. In the ensuing scuffle, a shot is fired before the shopkeeper is dispatched with a make-shift guitar-string garrotte. Believing the man to be dead, the three petty crooks flee and end up at their studio, which seems to be a disused cinema. Here, they make a solemn oath never to speak of the night’s events ever again, not realising that they have been overheard by the young Marc (Philippe Demarle) who’s there with someone else’s girlfriend at the time and so doesn’t want to be discovered. So, the stage is set for a story about trust and betrayal. Truth, secrets and lies.

The best thing about Disorder is the young cast and the youthful vibrancy they bring to their roles. It is an enduring strength of  Assayas that he can elicit intense and natural performances form young actors. There’s one particularly sensitive and well-written scene between Gabriel (Simon de La Brosse), the fourth member of the band, and his father (Philippe Laudenbach). Gabriel has just lifted some cash from his dad’s desk, presumably to fund better equipment for an important upcoming gig. His father seems to have a sixth sense and obviously understand much more than his son gives him credit for. Whilst shaving and getting into the bath, he suggests that Gabriel bring him his chequebook from his desk, so he can write a blank cheque to help support his son’s musical ambitions. Of course, this gives the youngster a chance to return the cash and get the money legitimately. The interaction, though subtler here, reminded me of the conversation between Gilles and his father in Assayas’ otherwise much better realised Cold Water.

Keeping secrets from each other, about the botched robbery, about who’s sleeping with who, and behind whose back, just keeps piling on the tension between this group of young wastrels until they can no longer be called friends. The band begins to fall apart, just as they are getting some interest from major labels. The band’s drummer, Xavier (Rémi Martin) is so upset at his girlfriend’s infidelity with their roadie, Marc, that he drives perilously fast and almost kills his passengers, Anne and Yvan, in a car crash. Y’know, if he had, it may have been a better film—a shorter one at least!

Assayas had already made a few shorts and a TV documentary, but seems to be having difficulty here transitioning to feature-length. The camerawork is fine in the capable hands of Denis Lenoir… I love the low-light photography, the grainy texture and muted colour palette that will become an Assayas signature. The cast is talented and each actor ensures their character is always believable. Unfortunately, those characters are really shallow and it’s difficult to muster sympathy for them. They all want something or someone else, but really don’t know what they want. The catharsis of killing and car crash really seems to have gone over their empty heads and the film descends into a subgenre I call “Stupid People Having a Bad Time.” As the band breaks up and friendships fray, lives unravel, and the spectre of rock and roll suicide looms over them…

disorder

By midway, Désordre’s spent all the energy it had and descends into tedium. I could try to excuse it with some intellectual deconstruction, by saying something along the lines of it being a metaphor about life and how the vitality of youth is eventually used, abused or diffused and adulthood is just repetitious drudgery whilst dwelling on past regrets and bitter-sweet memories—but I think even that’s a bit too generous. I don’t think there are any deep meanings to be found here, and if there’s a message I’m not sure what it might be because it’s certainly not philosophical, nihilist, and not at all punk. There’s just a feeling of emptiness, but not in an existentialist way.

It’s certainly a film of two halves. I would suggest watching up to the car-crash scene, then listening to “Three Dead Passengers In a Stolen Second Hand Ford”, a song by Dave Graney ’n’ the Coral Snakes, which has a stronger narrative and better filled-out characters, and then just sit back and watch Luc Besson’s Subway (1985) instead. That’s a far superior French film about putting a band together against the backdrop of ’80s Paris, and one that captures the spirit of the era more effectively whilst keeping a sense of humour and remaining both poetic and poignant.

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winter's child

Winter’s Child (1989)

Unfortunately, the second offering in this new Blu-ray package descends further into dreariness. Assayas has said that it’s the trivial things that become important. I think he proves here that the trivial things are… well, trivial. There’s much more interesting stuff going on around the edges in Winter’s Child that perhaps would’ve given us a glimpse into the passions of the characters. Sabine (Clotilde de Bayser) works in the theatre, Bruno (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) is an actor, Stephane (Michel Feller) is an architect, and his father (Gérard Blain) is an antique dealer. But throughout, the film dwells upon their messy mercurial relationships, which don’t have any passion in them at all.

I can see that Assayas is interested in the performances again (and for the most part the cast are competent), but the characters they play are uninteresting. Their choices and actions are frustratingly obtuse and as a viewer, one rapidly tires of their company. I mean how long can watching people gaze moodily into the middle-distance or grapple awkwardly with each other remain interesting?

Some of the dialogue they’re given to work worth is the worst kind of melodramatic cliché: “I’m afraid I’ll go mad. I’ll try not to. I don’t want to lose you… I came to say goodbye, now I’m not so sure. Don’t leave me… I love you, I need you, but it’s over.” I mean, talk about mixed messages!

That dialogue is used in a key scene when Sabine is bearing her shallow soul to Stephane and as the tears trickle down her cheeks, all I’m thinking is that the throw on the sofa is quite nice, but how do they manage to keep it so smooth and unwrinkled? Usually, they ruck-up after being sat on for a minute… I must write to the set dresser for their top tips.

Again, it’s the father/son relationships that seem the most heartfelt, this time spanning three generations. First, we witness the tail end of Stephane’s relationship with his own father, who ends up in a coma. This brings thoughts about his own son to the fore, making him reconsider the responsibilities of parenthood… By the end of the film, I must admit to a few pangs of sympathy towards Stephane—but it’s too little too late, really.

Although it looks beautiful (thanks again to the muted colours and great cinematography of Denis Lenoir), Winter’s Child makes all the same mistakes as Disorder, only this time set against a backdrop of middle-class ennui instead of youthful angst. Winter’s Child could almost be a sequel, a slice of life from the grown-up versions of the kids we met in the first film. But, if you look at it like that, it becomes yet more frustrating, because they haven’t learned from their mistakes. They’re still just as emotionally stunted and immature, all their angst and suffering is self-inflicted.

winter's child

The film could be approached as a deconstruction of mental illness and depression, and perhaps becomes more relevant, but also even less fun. Even though they resort to breaking-and-entering, assault and eventually murder, only a couple of characters get any satisfying closure to their stories, but by the time they do, we really don’t care about that and are just glad that the film must be ending soon…

It’s a French arthouse movie cliché throughout, the men are moody, immature, and selfish, while the women are emotionally fragile or downright mentally unwell and in need of help the men in their lives can’t provide. Perhaps I’m just not in the right audience demographic? I mean I don’t enjoy EastEnders either, but that has plenty of viewers. Winter’s Child is basically a middle-class soap and, just like EastEnders, it fixates on dysfunctional families, toxic relationships, and who’s-the-father plots?

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olivier assayas

Blu-ray Special Edition Contents:

  • Brand new 2K restorations of both films, supervised and approved by Olivier Assayas.
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations.
  • Original 2.0 Stereo soundtracks.
  • Optional English subtitles.
  • Interview with writer-director Oliver Assayas. I really like listening to Assayas speak, as his enthusiasm is always so evident. He speaks French at such a machine-gun pace that the subtitles can barely keep up! He gives us plenty of background about how and when he wrote and made his early films, with the main focus on Disorder in this 41-minute interview segment recorded in 2003. He openly admits he was almost entirely interested in the actors and their performance and let their talents dictate the direction the film moved in. He’s charmingly self-effacing and confesses that he was still feeling his way around how to make a feature film. He also talks about how being a film critic (for the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma) held him back and made him too self-critical.
  • Interview with the cast of Disorder: Ann-Gisel Glass, Lucas Belvaux, Wadeck Stanczak and Rémi Martin. In this 18-minute three-header interview from 2003, they all come across as very likable, far more so than the characters they played in the film! They give us a snapshot of their acting careers at the time, and overviews of how their careers have progressed since—they’ve all done well for themselves.
  • Theatrical trailers.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin.
  • First pressing only: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by Noel Megahey and Glenn Kenny. Not available at time of review.

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Olivier Assayas.
starring: ‘Disorder’—Wadeck Stanczak, Ann-Gisel Glass & Lucas Belvaux; ‘Winter’s Child’—Clotilde de Bayser, Michel Feller & Marie Matheron.

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