Film Review: Cold Water

Young lovers circle to their doom in this accomplished early feature for French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, now in its first commercial release in the U.S.
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Originally filmed as part of a French television series on adolescent love, Cold Water marked an auspicious new turn in directing for former critic Olivier Assayas back in 1994. Never officially released in the U.S., it now arrives in a restored version.

Even at this early stage in his career, Assayas was in full command of an incisive directing style based on fluid camerawork, elliptical cutting and propulsive soundtracks. Cold Water feels as fresh today as when it was filmed close to twenty-five years ago.

The script falls into the amour fou tradition, stories of doomed, deranged love like Jules et Jim and Betty Blue. Assayas sets the scene—the middle-class suburbs of Paris in 1972—carefully, focusing on casually disinterested high school students who cut class, steal records from department stores and deal grass and pills.

Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and his brother easily evade their parents' attempts at discipline. Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) is even more adept at dealing with adults. She sloughs off her divorced parents and is coolly unconcerned during a police interrogation.

Christine has been arrested for shoplifting, shown in a scene in which cinematographer Denis Lenoir follows the kids through a store in an extended, handheld medium shot of breathtaking virtuosity. Throughout the film it's as if there is no distance between the camera and the characters, pulling viewers right into their lives.

Assayas accelerates the story by deleting all the deadwood: the transitions, explanations and moralizing that drag down most adolescent movies. He will cut on a song lyric, a door slam, even a glance, confident that his writing and actors are strong enough for viewers to follow the story.

Nowhere is this style more apparent than in the movie's centerpiece, an all-nighter in an abandoned chateau. Fueled by drink, drugs and loud rock, kids dance, couple, fight and then attack the chateau itself, leading to a bonfire that could have come from Buñuel.

This was an important role for Ledoyen, at the time still considered a promising newcomer. (She would appear in Assayas's Late August, Early September, a sequel-of-sorts about slightly older friends.) Her understanding of Christine, a sharp but troubled teen who knows she's making bad choices, gives this film surprising moral complexity.

Assayas doesn't judge his characters, even though he knows they're wrong. Not the cops who can't persuade kids they're getting into trouble, the jaded teachers who have essentially given up on their students, the parents who can't talk to their children or the shopkeepers who just want them to go away. For that matter, he's just as hard on the kids, some of whom will never recover from their missteps.

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