Pace Lou Reed, nobody’s life is saved by rock and roll in Cold Water. This in spite of its young characters’ relentless pursuit of it, in both musical and metaphysical forms. Made in 1994, set in 1972, Olivier Assayas’s not-quite-coming-of-age film (much of which is reiterated, or one might say remixed, in his 2012 Something in The Air) shows its teenage characters desperate to be somewhere else almost all the time. “The crazy music drives you insane,” Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry sang on a song not heard in this film, but which exists in close proximity to it; the kids in this film seek not so much insanity as transportation.
It’s laid out in the film’s opening scenes: Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and his unnamed brother (Mathieu Mardoukhaev) glumly chow down while an older woman taking care of them regales the two with tales of desperate living from World War II; they couldn’t be more indifferent. They wrangle a radio and scurry to someplace where they can be alone; Gilles messes with the antenna, and there, faintly, comes Roxy Music’s single “Virginia Plain,” Ferry’s demand “make me a deal, and make it straight” sliding greasily off a wall-of-sound two-chord vamp. It’s like a transmission from another world, and the boys are transfixed.
Soon, Gilles is in a department store with his amie Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), discussing her woes. She’ll soon abet Gilles, spectacularly, in his shoplifting of a bunch of LPs, by crashing herself through the store’s glass door. Before this, she’ll express a silent disappointment with Gilles over his inability to understand her. He admits his shortcomings: “It’s true. I have my books, my papers, my records, but no experience.”
Among his books are Allen Ginsberg’s Planet News, and Gilles has a smoke and declaims, from memory, parts of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” before going to the party where the movie’s most indelible scene takes place. The party scene is one of the reasons it took so long for Cold Water to be screened in the States. The music played by an unseen phonograph at this grim celebration (held in an abandoned stone house from which the kids take all the wood to make a bonfire) is the kind of classic rock recycled nowadays by film and ad makers to evoke wistful nostalgia from boomers, and a continuing pain to acquire, rights-wise. The playlist hops from American simulations of roots music to trippy British folk back to the outré glam of “Virginia Plain” and more with all the discrimination and aesthetic coherence of, well, a bunch of sixteen-year-olds.
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