Cold Water: Dancing on the Ruins

Cold Water: Dancing on the Ruins

On Film / Essays — Sep 11, 2018

There is a brief, nearly throwaway scene early in Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (1994) that testifies to the transcultural power of rock and roll. In an apartment outside Paris in 1972, we see two teenage brothers wrestling over a portable transistor radio, trying to adjust the antenna to improve the reception. Suddenly, the opening chords of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” come blasting through the speaker, followed by Bryan Ferry’s voice: “Make me a deal, and make it straight.” The boys freeze; a quasi-religious hush falls over them. “Brilliant,” one of them whispers, wonder struck.

The scene, like the rest of the film, is loosely based in autobiography. In interviews, Assayas tells the story of how he and his brother, Michka (now a renowned rock critic), would tune in to an English-language radio station broadcasting from Luxembourg for their music fix when they were kids. The story strikes a personal chord for me: like them, I grew up in the seventies, under the mad spell of rock and roll, in a culture foreign to it. Rock music was scarce in Kolkata, where I spent my teenage years, because India restricted Western imports to encourage the domestic music industry. I subsisted on a diet of bootleg records, procured with considerable effort and some risk, since the country legally deemed them “smuggled goods.” In one of the bittersweet ironies of postcolonial life, it was rock—not Indian music—that constituted the formative soundtrack of my adolescence. Far from India but marked by a similar colonizing influence—that of Anglophone music and culture—the youth of Cold Water listen to no French music, just American and British rock and roll.

The film grew out of a commission forthe French television anthology Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge (All the Boys and Girls of Their Age, a title borrowed from a famous sixties pop song by Françoise Hardy), and music was an essential part of the series’ conception. Nine filmmakers—also including Chantal Akerman and Claire Denis—were asked to shoot hour-long works based on their own adolescences and to use music that had been in the air when they were that age. The films had to be set sometime between 1960 and 1990; were required to be shot in Super 16 mm in a span of eighteen to twenty-three days; were given a budget of one million dollars (in today’s terms); and had to include a party scene. Assayas complied with these guidelines but also made a feature version of his entry, one that would have a life beyond the small screen.

A few months in advance of the episode’s airing on television, Cold Water debuted at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and was rapturously received. But its general release was thwarted by a series of misfortunes for the companies involved, including bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the music rights—naturally a key component of the project—expired, and the movie languished. After more than two decades on the shelf, one of the great “missing films” is now at last in public view. 

At the heart of Cold Water are rebellious teenage lovers Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), both deeply unhappy, though in different ways, in their home lives. He has been raised in a culturally refined, upper-middle-class household, while she is a runaway estranged from her acrimoniously divorced, working-class parents. When Christine is arrested for helping Gilles shoplift records from a supermarket, she is handed over to her uncaring father, who commits her to a mental institution. She escapes, and reunites with Gilles at an abandoned château. The film’s climax, at that house, is one of the great party sequences in cinema—a tour de force that lasts a half hour—during which the lovers plan an ill-fated getaway.


Cold Water turned out to be an artistic breakthrough for Assayas. Like Gilles, he had grown up in a comfortable home steeped in culture, and he decided early on to become a painter, devoting himself to abstract art for almost a decade. But the painter’s life, confined to a studio, proved too solitary for him. Longing for social contact and impelled by a desire to be “dealing with real, tangible things” (as he once told an interviewer), he turned to cinema. His earliest preparations for working in the film world came by way of two experiences: ghostwriting episodes of TV shows for his ailing screenwriter father, Jacques Rémy; and penning film criticism for the influential Cahiers du cinéma. Lacking any formal training in filmmaking, he was fired by the DIY spirit of the punk movement, wanting to “reproduce in film the intensity, the here-and-now-ness” he had felt when he saw the Clash perform in Paris as a teenager. Assayas dove in and found success early: Disorder (1986), his debut, won the critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival. But it wasn’t until Cold Water, his fifth feature, that he discovered a way of working that enabled him to tap into his deepest values.

These values were informed by a long engagement with the movement of Situationism, which has been a touchstone for Assayas all his adult life. Of its most famous text, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Assayas wrote not long ago that he had “not found anything more persuasive, neither before nor since.” The Situationists were a radical-left group of intellectuals whose anticapitalist critique of media-saturated consumer culture—what they called “the spectacle”—seems strikingly prescient today. They rose to international visibility during the May ’68 protests in France, and Assayas came to political consciousness a few years later. So profoundly marked was he by their ideas that he titled his memoir A Post-May Adolescence and addressed it as a letter to the poet Alice Debord, who supervised the publication of her husband Guy’s manuscripts and correspondence after his death by suicide in 1994.

For the Situationists, artworks—even those that were oppositional in stance—were little more than commodities in service of the spectacle. In order to escape this fate, it was necessary to fold art into the practice of everyday life. In the spirit of a prominent piece of May ’68 graffiti that proclaimed, “The more you consume, the less you live,” Situationists believed that the ephemerality of the everyday offered a way to resist easy commodification. One vehicle for merging art-making and living was the “situation,” a collectively constructed moment, an adventure, in an environment with a unifying ambience. While filming Cold Water’s epic party sequence at the château, Assayas had a revelation: that he had accidentally helped create all the right conditions for something akin to a “situation.” It was a cold night, and fifty euphoric teenagers were partying for the camera: “They smoked grass, they flirted, they warmed themselves around braziers,” he later said. All of this was accompanied by a stream of rock music that reverberated through the air. In his memoir, Assayas wonders: “What if, in cinema, the veritable artistic gesture was not so much the finished result as the shooting itself? Aren’t most films less than what has been lived, truly lived, while they were being made?” It was an insight that was to transform his approach to filmmaking, reducing his reliance on rehearsals and opening him up to irruptions of the unpredictable on set. Contributing to this artistic metamorphosis were production constraints that were new to the young filmmaker—access to only 16 mm cameras, with their lighter weight; the limited budget. He found that they gave him a creative freedom and mobility that he wanted to retain even on the bigger projects that followed. 

Broadly speaking, the genre of the teen movie can be said to comprise two strands: On the one hand, there is the conventionally understood commercial teen film, targeted primarily at an adolescent audience, of which the eighties oeuvre of John Hughes might be the best-known model. But if we adopt a broader definition—one that can include all films about teenagers and their experiences—it opens up the field to art cinema. Cold Water belongs to this second strand, which we might call the art/teen movie, an illustrious lineage that also comprises films as disparate as Maurice Pialat’s Graduate First (1978), Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991), Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001), and one of Assayas’s favorites, Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977). 

Like the makers of these movies, Assayas has his own personal, signature style, one that owes much to the unencumbered shooting methods he was afforded on Cold Water; central to this style is the idea of movement. Critic Kent Jones has written that it is “hard to recall anyone in a state of repose” in Assayas’s work. The restless bodies in his films are captured by a visual style to match: a lyrical camera, often moving, that is preternaturally sensitive to tiny details of facial expression, nonverbal gesture, clothing, hair, and body movement. Meanwhile, this camera is forever reframing, recomposing the image from one moment to the next, almost miraculously uncovering elements of visual interest. In describing this effect, Jones memorably writes that Assayas “makes an event out of every shape and spatial configuration that crosses his camera’s field of vision.” The director’s style has an analogue in Situationist practice: that of the dérive, which is a drift, an exploratory movement through an urban environment in which the wanderer remains poetically aware of each moment, each small discovery.

The party set piece in Cold Water might be the fullest and most ambitious expression of Assayas’s ability to wed his mastery of movement to a structural bedrock of music, a series of songs that accompany the episodes we witness. The action and the music vary in mood and tempo, creating a rhythmic ebb and flow that drive the drama of the sequence. As Christine roams silently through the party, lost in herself, Janis Joplin sings “Me and Bobby McGee,” a narrative of wandering and loss. Gilles arrives and searches anxiously for her; Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” blares, echoing his urgency. A group of teens (none of whom we know) languidly pass around a marijuana pipe; as they do, the record player switches abruptly to Bob Dylan’s lovely “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The party climaxes with furniture being hurled into a giant bonfire to the driving rhythm of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend.” When the coda comes around, it is morning, andthe revelers are stirring pensively from their hangovers on the mansion grounds, while the heavy dirge of Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” fills the soundtrack. The environment that envelops and unifies all these events is the setting: the vast, decrepit château is symbolically charged, a site of generational revolt, with (in Assayas’s words) “seventies kids dancing on the ruins of the Old World.” 

There is a stark, unbridgeable gulf between adults and youth in Cold Water, and it is dramatized by Assayas and his gifted cinematographer, Denis Lenoir, in their consistent use of long takes—an art-cinema hallmark—while working in two different modes. In scenes that primarily involve teens, the camera moves in especially close, attaching itself to their often impulsive and volatile movements; the visual style signals no hierarchies or imbalances of power among any of the young characters in the film. In contrast, the rhythm slows down dramatically in all of the encounters between young people and adults—such as Gilles and his father, or Christine and the police—in which teenagers are often pinned in static, seated positions, stripped of agency or authority. But the film does not treat all adults alike. Women and people of color (like Christine’s mother and her Arab boyfriend) invite our empathy when we learn of their personal struggles, but the adult white men are almost uniformly obdurate. Both Gilles’s teacher and Christine’s father possess a cold and cruel indifference; the latter, despicably, tries to paint both Christine and her mother as mentally unsound, unfit for society.

Viewing Cold Water today, one is struck by its utter lack of nostalgia, no small feat for an autobiographical film that showcases period music. There are scenes of teenage alienation and despair here—such as Gilles slashing the seats on a train, or Christine attacking her friends with a pair of scissors at the party—that are profoundly disturbing. Ledoyen’s performance as Christine (she’s one of the few professional actors among the younger members of the cast) is one for the ages: raw, feral, tender, and devastatingly tragic. The music, in current terms, might be characterized as “boomer rock” (as Pitchfork has pointed out), but Assayas rightly views the film as a “punk-rock take” on the seventies, though its period predates by a few years the rise of that movement. By refusing to romanticize teenage life or sentimentalize the musical memories that are forged during those precious, fleeting years, Cold Water, despite the passage of decades, manages to feel wholly fresh, resonant, and affecting. And it has had an enduring influence on the rest of Assayas’s career. Its spirit of creative restlessness and cultural inquisitiveness presages a prolific filmography that spans continents, languages, and genres. Assayas is now one of the world’s leading art filmmakers, and he has achieved that success without relinquishing the impulse toward experimentalism or the deep curiosity about life in the modern world that remain so palpable and vital in Cold Water.