Michael Koresky on Cold Water

Olivier Assayas’s camera unites even as it isolates. Through his casually elaborate and, by now, trademark long takes, Assayas depicts his environments as though ever-shifting, attempting to capture every movement and gesture before they evaporate into the immediate past—each surface, raw or shimmering, becomes a piece of found art, revelatory and almost wholly incidental. Yet he fears to linger, something else may catch the camera eye, a glint becomes a distraction, the distraction then becomes the subject, the subject in turn becomes a fleeting glimpse. Whether jittery (Late August, Early September’s angst-ridden caffeine high) or fluid (Les Destineés’ ballroom curlicues, demonlover’s insidious millennial glides), Assayas’s technique is always reliably restrained, his complex tracking shots and endless, intimately labyrinthine single takes rarely call attention to themselves—they simply exist, watch, trail, breathe. You barely notice the bravura filmmaking that’s taking place because everything is so naturally there, captured.

Yet he can always catch you off guard. Les Destineés’ epic dimensions seemed to creep up without warning; by the extended climax one realizes its stripped-away aesthetic has whispered the weight of existence into its bones. Irma Vep’s surveying of contemporary international cinema thrust the viewer so off-handedly into its multicultural film stew that it almost seemed like a work of science fiction. That Assayas can so consistently achieve pinpoint tonal accuracy, that he can so often elevate his conceptual examinations into centered, grave studies of people from different walks of life, that the textures of his films always seem about to be scraped down to a core realization, is attributable to his cinematographic dexterity. Whether working with longtime DP Denis Lenoir, as on Cold Water or recent collaborator Eric Gautier, the director maintains a remarkable visual uniformity from film to film. Equally generous with his actors’ faces (lovely, inquisitive Virginie Ledoyen; glowing, empathetic Maggie Cheung; exacting, precise Charles Berling) as he is with the environments that encroach upon and threaten to envelop them, Assayas uses his camera to glide past the details that other directors would use as simple harbingers or narrative markers—as the audience, we feel privileged, not condescended to, to have spotted the bloody handprint on the hotel room door before it’s ominously washed away in demonlover, to be able to revel in Nathalie Richard’s every nuanced gesture and goofy smile in Irma Vep. These moments are indelible, but catch them if you can—with Assayas, everything is tactile, and thus could all easily disintegrate. We’re constantly slipping past symbols, bounding over narrative formalities, all the while pocketing visual mementos and souvenirs.

In one of the many scenes of broken communication in Assayas’s 1994 Cold Water (his entry into the French film series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge), disenfranchised teen Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and his father have an extended discussion that ranges from reminiscing about the Louvre to the possibility of boarding school. The scene begins with an overhead shot of a coffee table book as Gilles’s father opens to a photograph of Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin,” its nude subject deceased and sprawled out amidst the flock of mourners. The father asks his son if the painting moves him, and the camera pans over slowly, catching Gilles from the knees down as he gingerly walks to the right behind the length of the glass coffee table. Yet even as Gilles moves from his father and the book, talk of the painting lingers. Caravaggio used a drowned prostitute as the model, the father explains, and had to flee Rome after killing a man in a duel. All the while, we simply see Gilles’s shoes as they tread upon the maroon oriental rug. It’s the simplest of shots, and couldn’t last for more than twenty seconds, yet even here, in what many would deem a throwaway, Assayas distills the essence of his film. With this graceful little sidestep, he unites emotional dislocation, the pain of generational divide, and the need to funnel these things into art.

The first cut following this brings us back to the face of the father, as he asks, “Are you listening?” Cold Water concerns a great many characters who would have a difficult time answering that question, all difficult people in difficult situations, yet none of whom are judged by an omniscient narrative authority. The film feels less like a decisive cultural portrait of a time and place than an eavesdrop. Yet it is so very much about a particular time and place. Set outside of Paris in 1972, Cold Water closely follows young Gilles and Christine (played by Ledoyen) as they teeter on a precipice somewhere between healthy rebelliousness and nihilist anti-authoritarianism. As contemporary youths wandering in a haze of post-May ’68 restlessness, Gilles and Christine, who seem to truly love each other in a spiritual way that transcends mere juvenile infatuation, never can quite articulate what they want, or where they would rather be, though it sure as hell isn’t here. Gilles has become persona non grata at school, his lackadaisical attitude toward a vaguely defined establishment has made him a common scapegoat. Christine, torn between mother and father in a bitter custody battle, has even less grasp of a firm foundation—her parents’ response to her recklessness is to admit her to Beausoleil mental hospital.

Assayas’s roving, insinuating camerawork grants the film its rough-hewn edges, ensuring the teenagers’ plight is never sentimentalized, a serious concern considering the casting of clean-cut, doe-eyed Fouquet and porcelain beauty Ledoyen, whose proclivity to let her stringy, unwashed hair hang in front of her face can only conceal so much. These beautiful losers may recall those in The Devil Probably, Bresson’s 1977 ode to political desperation and youthful nihilism enacted by a cast of pretty, blank-slate immaculates. In a 1999 Film Comment piece on that film, Assayas deems it a reflection of his true emerging awareness at this time of social distress: “Bresson was saying what I felt, only he employed other words to say it, outside of time, that address themselves to the universal—this strikes me today, and for quite some time now, more consciously than then.” The shadow of Bresson’s film hangs over Cold Water, but Assayas is certainly correct that he “employs other words” when expressing his own malaise. Bresson’s synecdoche linked his characters to their surroundings: hands, legs, waists fighting for visual supremacy among the transportation and monetary devices hovering around them, static shots and quick cuts linking subject to object. Through similar dissociative leaps, Bresson focuses, penetrates, while Assayas flits by. Both films seem to create similar textural boundaries, yet while Bresson’s edits remain victim to them, Assayas’s camera soars past their perimeters. And it’s in this breaking free of formal restriction that Assayas unites his unassuming technical audacity with his thematic yearning and youthful restlessness.

Yet what to do with such formless freedom, and its terrifyingly open spaces? When Charles is falsely accused of stealing from the church’s donation box in The Devil Probably, it’s as though the intimation of criminal action emanates from the same shadowy corner as political claustrophobia; the sky is falling. Yet when Christine and Gilles shoplift a bunch of records from the local music store, filling up their satchel with a heavy handful of the latest pop albums, they smile gleefully; there is a joyous freedom in their misdeeds. In their attempt to dash out through the security barriers, Christine is caught and takes the brunt of the responsibility—it’s the endless possibilities of liberation, the question of how to behave free of social and emotional constrictions that finally closes in on her.

The blank suicide note that ends Cold Water may recall the unfinished final sentence of Charles in The Devil Probably: “Shall I tell you what...” he begins, but is interrupted by a gunshot from behind. Likewise, Christine would like to tell Gilles what she believes, but she cannot articulate it. Despite the thematic connections, Bresson could never have possibly envisioned what precedes this dour conclusion: the much-celebrated, lengthy (nearly half the film’s running time) all-night party sequence, an undeniable tour-de-force depicting youthful freedom run rampant, a striving for individual autonomy through the embrace of pop cultural symbols. Janis Joplin’s throaty murmur begins to fade in on the soundtrack while Ledoyen is framed alongside a flaming barrel fire, we follow her a bit as she moves through a cluster of kids. The camera then wanders, loses sight of her, Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” swells. When we cut back to find Ledoyen, her long hair hanging in her face as usual, she is now surrounded by others, but she appears as alone as ever. Joplin reaches a caterwauling fever pitch while Ledoyen brandishes a pair of scissors and chops off a large portion of her hair. Assayas can barely keep up with all the frenetic activity on display, yet he seems disinclined to let it escape his delicate grasp. The sequence transcends vague notions of “bohemia” and the sheer exaltation saves it from being a mere representation of a lost hippie culture. There is something more timeless, more ineffable here, so that to render it as anything more than a feeling would be bombastic.

When remembered, the events of the party sequence, set in an abandoned hillside manor, are inextricable from the music. Assayas aqueously follows a marijuana pipe as it’s passed from one hand to the next, while Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” echoes, then segues to Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” (as young couples embrace), which is interrupted by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend.” It’s when this record scratches out, skips, and starts once more from the beginning, and the bonfire blazes, that we truly feel the freedom of this moment, which is, like all of Assayas’s liberating filmmaking, so tangible and fleeting. As the thumping opening guitar riff of the song we have just heard begins again, Assayas makes us the witnesses, or better yet, casual spectators, of this “lost” generation, so maniacally searching for themselves, fumbling, starting over again, and, of course, dancing.

It’s the benediction of Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” that sobers us. Dawn appears, and with a slow pan across the manor’s windows, we see many of the kids squatting, urinating in the pastoral fields beyond the property—Nico’s guttural dirge transforms it into a true purification. By hovering through these landscapes, Assayas remains a governing spirit, if not a dictating voice, for all of his lost souls. Controlled yet so easily distracted, his camera eye acknowledges that existence is merely an ongoing stream of consciousness, intuition, dissociation. Janis Joplin’s lyric, repeated in the closing credits, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” seems to provide the basis for the cinema of Olivier Assayas. Unfettered, his camera investigates the social parameters that define patterns of civilization, people locked into frameworks they want to extricate themselves from—studies in isolation that nevertheless find grace notes of freedom.