A spirit of rebellion has always run through the work of French writer-director Olivier Assayas, but it is perhaps most acutely felt in his masterpiece Cold Water. After growing up in the political tumult of France in the sixties and seventies, Assayas followed a path similar to the one traveled by several titans of the French New Wave, first working as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, then moving on to film projects, including collaborations with André Téchiné and his own feature directorial debut, the 1986 Disorder. In 1994, he made his artistic breakthrough with Cold Water, a portrait of the unruliness of youth that draws inspiration from his own life. The film originated as a commissioned piece for All the Boys and Girls of Their Age (Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge), a French television series focused on adolescence that also included work by Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman. Aside from the subject matter, the rules of the game were that each episode contain a party scene using rock music and be shot on Super 16 mm within an eighteen to twenty-four-day time span. Assayas’s response to the challenge was a formally daring, poignant drama about a pair of rebellious young lovers, Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), in the early 1970s. The film reaches its high point in a thirty-minute-long party scene at an abandoned country mansion, set to a string of tunes that evoke the era.
Though it garnered acclaim when it played in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, Cold Water has long been difficult to see, having never received theatrical distribution in the U.S. In anticipation of the film’s opening at New York’s IFC Center, I spoke with Assayas about its autobiographical origins and the impact it has had on the rest of his career.
Can you tell me about Tous les garçons et les filles and how you became involved with the series?
Chantal Poupaud initiated it, and I’d known her because she was doing a lot of PR for indie movies. She approached me pretty early on with this idea of having a few filmmakers make movies about their teenage years, using the music they had listened to at that time. Because I had been making movies that had some kind of musical background, some kind of rock-and-roll texture, I was one of the first filmmakers she contacted. I think Jean-Claude Brisseau and Benoît Jacquot were also involved. But then it did not happen, and time went by.
Once in a while I’d get a message from Chantal asking, “Are you still in?” It must have been in the works for a couple years, and finally she called to tell me she had found a producer. He happened to be Georges Benayoun, from IMA Films, and they had convinced ARTE, the French-German cultural channel, to finance it. The idea was to do a fifty-minute TV movie on a very small budget. Maybe if it had happened earlier, I would not have been onboard because I would have been very busy with other projects. I’d just made a movie called A New Life, which was a total disaster. I’m happy with the film, but the shoot was plagued by conflicts with the producer, who disagreed with the approach of my cut. The whole thing was a nightmare, so I thought it was a good time to try something else, something new.
I wanted to make a feature. I didn’t want to make a fifty-minute TV movie; I was not interested in shooting something autobiographical and just having it be something that’s aired on television once. I needed to make something that was a bit more lasting. So I told Chantal and Georges that I was going to make—with whatever small budget they were giving me—a ninety-minute semi-experimental film. And everything fell into place. I started shooting right after the opening of A New Life, and I needed that freedom. The sense of lightness that 16 mm gives you—for me, that was something completely different. I’ve always made very personal films, but this was straightforward autobiography, even if it was fictionalized.
What was it like to work on this kind of project?
The paradox of the project was that it was a commissioned work—and it was the first time I’d done anything that remotely resembled commissioned work—but someone was commissioning me to be very personal. It had a more lasting influence on my work than I could have imagined. It was the start of a new chapter in both my life and my career. The lightness and pleasure of the filmmaking tools, and the lack of pressure because it was so cheap, gave me a sense that I could continue on that path and make movies that were not too dependent on French financing. I wouldn’t have done a movie like Irma Vep had I not had the experience of making Cold Water before it. And the same goes for the documentary I did on Hou Hsiao-hsien, HHH, which I made with Eric Gautier, who followed what we did on Cold Water. I made one more Super 16 movie—Late August, Early September—so it was a whole moment in my work when I really enjoyed using this 16 mm camera. I sum it up as my “Dogme moment.” It was pre-Dogme—it was three years earlier—but it was pretty much the same idea and had a very similar energy.
You use the word “experimental,” which makes me curious about the style of the film and why you approached telling the story in that way.
I had no idea you could make a feature in four weeks. But we shot Cold Water in that amount of time. I thought: okay, I’m going to make a feature that will be a separate project within the shooting of Cold Water, but it would have the same kind of experimental texture of the movies that Philippe Garrel made in the seventies or Andy Warhol made in the sixties. Beyond making a movie about the seventies, I wanted to embed the notion of a kind of film that would have been made in the seventies. The thing that is strange for me about Cold Water is that this movie was shot in the mid-nineties, but when I looked at the film again while doing the restoration, it felt like the seventies. Instead of being a retro re-creation of the seventies, it deals with something that’s at the core of those years. It’s a movie I could have made as a teenager if I was making movies at that point.
How did you go about casting the roles of Christine and Gilles?
Initially, the rule was that I did not want to use anybody who had seen a camera. I wanted to start from scratch. A lot of the prep for the film was spent casting, which went on for months. I didn’t know Virginie Ledoyen at that time, but she was the actress I had the most trouble casting. I was concerned that she was too good-looking for the part. Also, she had had a career as a child actress. But the minute I met her I sensed that she was exceptional, that she was a unique actress. She was not part of the “Dogme” rules of the project, so it took me a while to accept that I was going to use her. But the second I made up my mind I was comfortable with the decision, and when we started shooting, I realized she was absolutely Christine, and she would transcend the part. Cyprien Fouquet was in many ways closer to my initial view [of his character]. He was this sort of Bressonian actor; he was very pure and had an interiority and intensity. I often think back to Cyprien as a perfect representation of the person I was at that time, and I feel very lucky to have found him.
What was your experience like working with the two of them?
I don’t rehearse at all now, but at the time I did some rehearsing. I certainly didn’t do any reading with the actors before the shoot, but we rehearsed on the set. I was surprised how much I was using very long shots, which made the editing very simple because all the material was there. Years later, when I made Something in the Air, which is about teenagers during the same period, I had a hard time making the kids understand what the seventies were about. The politics, the energy, and the relationship to culture and music—I had to explain that. They played it, but I’m not sure they completely understood it. But when I was making Cold Water in the mid-nineties, there was no misunderstanding. They knew exactly what this was about.
Music is such an important part of your work. Did this film change your approach to it?
Cold Water was a turning point. I’ve always had a hard time with scoring movies. It’s something I did on my first and second features, and I was not so happy with the results. I did it on my third feature, Paris Awakens, and though the music was by John Cale and considerably better than the music on my previous films, I was still not happy with the way music connected with emotions and within the images. The movie I made right after that, A New Life, had no music at all. So Cold Water was a way of going back and building a new relationship with music.
What was fascinating about it was that, for the first time, I was using only music that I loved. The way I approached that very long party scene was by structuring it with music, with tracks that would cover the specific emotions and the way they change during the night. Ultimately, the songs ended up becoming one with the narrative—they say something that’s beyond the story. I think that people who have experienced the seventies are connected by that music, so all of a sudden it’s a universal language.
In many ways, the soundtrack to Something in the Air is much closer to the kind of music I loved at that time. I was very much into British underground. But the way I approached Cold Water was a little different. It doesn’t have the music I was actually listening to; it’s the music kids at that time were listening to. Then there were things I was not even aware of, like the first single by Roxy Music, “Virginia Plain.” Within the context of the film I realized that there is something extremely modern in the track, and that it was a harbinger of what would happen with punk rock. I also used songs by Leonard Cohen and Donovan that were from mature albums, not carried by the energy of their early days. These albums had the melancholy texture of artists who were producing beautiful music but were not that much a part of the zeitgeist. There was already something about the late sixties and early seventies that was fading, and those songs were about the fading.
You’ve talked about how your films are all connected in some way. I’m wondering where Cold Water fits into the context of your career.
It’s like a second first film in many ways, but it’s also strangely a prequel to my first film, Disorder. The characters in that film were the closest I’d ever gotten to autobiography, and they are ultimately the characters of Cold Water [as they would be] a few years later.
Listen to a Spotify playlist of the songs featured in the film here.