Occasionally, a rare cinematic kernel lost to the ages due to whatever obsequious copyright or distributor issues, manages to resurface despite the odds. We can count the recuperation of Olivier Assayas’ 1994 feature Cold Water amongst such rediscovered contemporary classics, long languishing in obscurity after its lauded premiered in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Already Assayas’ fifth feature, this musically inclined autobiographical portrait of 1970s French youth should have stood as his unmitigated breakthrough, but its international acclaim was muted by certain musical rights issues despite making a splash at the New York Film Festival (his next feature, 1996’s Irma Vep, also premiered out of Un Certain Regard, and would finally jumpstart his ascension as one of France’s most notable modern art-house auteurs). Fresh off his competition for the 2018 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with Non-Fiction, we can revisit Assayas’ sterling earlier work, which resembles in many ways his previous bid for the Golden Lion with 2012’s Something in the Air, set several years prior while deliberating France’s tumultuous youthful wartime revolt through a more non-linear ensemble of young adults.
In the early 1970s Parisian outskirts, teen lovers Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) defy the expectations of their parents and society. While Gilles comes from a wealthy, upper-class family, Christine is the product of working class divorced parents, stuck between a bitter custody battle of which her mother is on the losing end (thanks to her new boyfriend, an Algerian unfortunately working in an illegal profession). When Christine is arrested on one of their shoplifting sprees, her father has her placed in a sanatorium, from which she escapes, leading them to an abandoned chateau where a spectacular party transpires.
If Cold Water can be most closely compared to Something in the Air, the former title plays a bit more formally with narrative structure, if mostly in part to the central troubled romance between Ledoyen and Fouquet. In retrospect, this is one of Ledoyen’s sterling examples from an early career which found her to be a representative of youthful feminine malaise, as evidenced by her work in Benoit Jacquot’s A Single Girl (1995) and later in Assayas’ 1998 ensemble Late August, Early September.
Ledoyen certainly has the more tragic character arc as well, coming from working class roots, taking the brunt of legal action thanks to her boyfriend’s shoplifting, and committed to an institution she’s later forced to escape from. Assayas allows her the most redolent snippets of desperation, perhaps most violently exercised in a self-inflicted botched hair job over a decade before Britney Spears made such a cry for help into a media punchline. As Girish Shambu’s insert essay points out, Cold Water is a sterling example of the teen movie genre as art cinema, rightly comparing it to another post-New Wave French titan, Maurice Pialat’s 1978 drama Graduate First.
Assayas’ trajectory mirrors the alums of the French New Wave, like Truffaut graduating from film criticism to screenwriter and eventually a generation defining auteur. Assayas’ early days as a screenwriter for Andre Techine disappear into the ether as Cold Water heads into its adolescent bacchanalian, its angry teens burning the artifacts of a bygone era from the dilapidated chateau, set to the vibrant, short-lived energy of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend.” Like the floating figures wandering through the rooms of a similar sequence in Something in the Air, random American rock tunes crush the film’s final act into a compendium of nostalgia while its characters and intentions play like a rediscovered artifact dug out of a well-reamed time capsule.
Criterion presents this lost classic as a new 4K digital restoration in 1.66:1 with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio. Picture and sound quality are superb in this transfer, which also includes a new English subtitle translation. New interviews with Assayas and DP Denis Lenoir are among the extra features.
Criterion conducted this fifteen-minute interview in March 2018 with Olivier Assayas in New York. Describing the film as a Polaroid of the time, Assayas speaks to how the music defines the period and tone of the film, utilizing tracks which would have been heard in 1972.
Criterion conducted this ten-minute interview in May 2018 with cinematographer Denis Lenoir, who speaks on specific frames of Cold Water as well as the process of Assayas.
Le Cercle de Minuit:
Assayas is featured alongside Cyprien Fouquet and Virginie Ledoyen in this twelve-minute segment from the 1994 French television program Le cercle de minuit from the Cannes Film Festival.
While Criterion’s Eclipse series would make a wonderful platform for a box-set of Assayas’ first four titles (including his 1986 debut Disorder) and his early screenwriting success (1985’s Rendezvous is a must), Cold Water remains the refreshing unearthed gem it was defined as nearly twenty-five years ago.
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆