Set in and around Paris in 1972, writer-director Olivier Assayas’s 1994 film Cold Water follows a teenage couple, Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), as they chafe against their parents and the bureaucracy they feel has enslaved them. Gilles and Christine are intelligent, attractive, and from the requisitely opposing sides of the tracks: The former is from an intellectual family, while the latter is the daughter of a working-class man and a bohemian woman who’s written off as “crazy,” much like Christine herself. The young lovers have the sort of beautiful, absurdly self-absorbed and self-righteous chemistry that haunts people long after a relationship has collapsed. Correspondingly, Assayas fashions a docudramatic impressionism that would become a signature of his work, suggesting that Gilles and Christine’s romance has already faded into memory. Like many of Assayas’s subsequent films, Cold Water relates a generational ghost story.
A sense of fading remembrance informs the film’s structure and aesthetic. Scenes fly by in fleeting wisps, often seemingly half-formed, suggesting that Gilles, the narrative’s central consciousness, can’t quite recall every moment that leads to the startling catharsis of the film’s conclusion. Yet the wisps contain multitudes of pathos and irony—the textures that might escape a miserable teenager but dawn on an adult. Cold Water opens with a nanny explaining to Gilles and his younger brother the atrocities she lived through in war-torn Europe as a child. The nanny’s vulnerability is heartbreaking, but the children are too preoccupied with their radio to offer even a pretense of interest. We also understand a teacher’s frustration when he throws Gilles out of his classroom, as the boy offers him the impassive disinterest that educators know too well. And Christine is more volatile than Gilles, spinning elaborate stories about a police officer’s sexual misconduct, and later brandishing scissors as a possible weapon against herself and others.
Cold Water is infused with an uncanny element of loss that’s romantic as well as pragmatically lucid. The film’s youths, like the adults, aren’t glorified or vilified. Parents and other authority figures try to reach Gilles and Christine through art, such as Caravaggio’s paintings and Rousseau’s writing, but such work strikes the teenagers as hopelessly alien. Gilles and Christine are moved by the classic, largely American rock of their time, and the music of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival features prominently on the soundtrack. (Rights issues, surrounding this music, kept the film from reaching America until this year.) Gilles and Christine’s failures of empathy are rooted in their palpable need to escape from adults and the official buildings that Assayas renders as a series of stifling labyrinths.
The film’s first half suggests a procedural, with Gilles and Christine navigating the constricted hallways of classrooms, posh apartments, and police stations, while its second half is diaphanous and poetic, offering a vision of the fleeting fantasy of communion that drives youthful rebellion. Escaping to the countryside, Gilles follows the runaway Christine to a seemingly abandoned home, where they and dozens of other young people dance to rock n’ roll, smoke weed, make out, and sustain a glorious fire. The camera, seemingly everywhere, plays tag with Gilles, Christine, and their peers as they bop in and out of the house. Assayas intimately grasps the exhilarating energy of transit in a young party—of moving from room to room in search of possibility.
This sentimentalizing of youthful attractiveness—of feeling desired by the desirable (a feeling many never get to experience, even in youth)—is counterweighted by Assayas’s understanding of the inherent violence of such revelry. Moments of intoxicating camaraderie, such as when partiers pass a bowl around like a religious artifact while listening to Dylan’s hauntingly beautiful “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” are contrasted with sequences in which windows are smashed and chairs are stolen and broken down. Riffing on the failed revolution of ‘68, Assayas shows rebellion to be genetically intertwined with fascism, fashioning a kind of mini-adaptation of Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” in which creation and destruction are paradoxically revealed to be one in the same.
The sheer length of this sequence is breathtaking, allowing us to experience cascading waves of indulgence, selfish freedom, and, eventually, hangover. The fire of this party rhymes with Gilles and Christine’s passion, as well as with flames of revolution that could not remain alight. Logically, then, fire must inevitably beget the element of the film’s title. Desperate to preserve the party’s sense of possibility, Christine proposes to Gilles an impossible dream of running away to a sanctuary of her imagination. Camping out near a river, Christine strips and submerges herself in water, her sensual, ghostly corporeality suggesting a kind of mental cleansing—a clarity. She fades away, along with the paradoxical vision of democratic anarchy that’s so often circled back in history to suppression. For Assayas, such a vision, a remembrance of a failed and naïve promise, has proven to be essentially unshakable.
Making Cold Water available in the United States for the first time on home video, Criterion offers a transfer that honors the film's scruffy elegance. The image balances healthy grain and grit with autumnal colors that are vividly burnished. Facial textures are painstakingly detailed, allowing one to discern seemingly every nuance of the protagonists' pores, which is important to a film that's composed of so many intimate close-ups. Meanwhile, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack informs the film's many rock songs with rich body and heft, and the diegetic noises are appropriately sharp and subtle.
In a new interview recorded for this disc, Olivier Assayas discusses Cold Water's origins as an episode of a French television program, and how he talked the producers into allowing him to make a feature-length film. Assayas also covers the narrative's political themes and autobiographical roots, though one wishes that he'd been afforded more than 20 minutes' worth of screen time to explore these topics. The other supplements are even shorter and less comprehensive, though the interview with cinematographer Dennis Lenoir valuably calls attention to the film's intricate and resonant camera movements. On the other hand, the excerpt from a 1994 French TV program, featuring Assayas and actors Virginie Ledoyen and Cyprien Fouquet, is entirely skippable. Rounding out the package is a booklet with an essay by Girish Shambu, which adds textual meat to a relatively slight assemblage of extras.
Criterion has sensitively restored Cold Water, allowing Americans to finally savor the film's simultaneously dreamy and docudramatic vitality.