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The Rock’n’Roll Utopia of Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, Film’s Lost Coming-of-Age Masterpiece

There are films that linger as sounds and smells, whose plot details eventually blur into an ungraspable memory but still never fail to evoke a certain feeling. Cold Water, the newly restored 1994 film from Personal Shopper director Olivier Assayas, is a coming-of-age drama so wonderfully textured that even when its climactic scene is just a party where teenagers bop to one ’70s anthem after another, it stays with the viewer as a wholly sensory experience. There’s the scent of the bonfire during the party, the glow of the flame on adolescent faces, and, earlier in the film, the crackle of a radio just before it blasts Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain,” a moment of sonic euphoria that reminds me of the first time I heard the song myself. I don’t remember where or when, just that hearing it made me feel young and fun and boundless. Like all good films about youth, Cold Water has that kind of unadulterated energy even when melancholia threads through it.

Set in 1972, the subtitled French film introduces us to the disenchanted teen protagonist Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and his younger brother as they run around the house with their little radio, adjusting the antenna and trying to get the signal to pick up. When they finally find the perfect spot, Bryan Ferry’s deep, playfully seductive voice streams in: “Make me a deal and make it straight.” It’s a brief moment made to feel like a burst of utopia, as though nothing can be better than that signal picking up. Assayas wanted to mirror the difficulty, and the joy, of listening to music when he was growing up in the ’70s.

“There was obviously no internet, and there was no rock’n’roll on French radio at all,” he tells me shortly after the SXSW premiere of the new restoration. “What was happening in the music scene was out of reach. You had three record shops in Paris, not much more than that. I was growing up in the countryside near Paris, which was pretty far. So you eventually read about music in Melody Maker. I ordered it at the bookstand in my little village and there was this English language radio in Luxembourg that was transmitting music. You could tune in with a French transistor radio but it was not easy—depending on the day, where you were, the angle of the antenna. You had to struggle to have access.”

Cold Water was birthed from a made-for-TV series, in which various European art-film auteurs including Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, and André Téchiné paid homage to their teenage years. Assayas’ take on the concept premiered at Cannes in 1994 before airing on French TV, but after a limited run in France and Italy, Cold Water was shelved. According to Assayas, the sales company repping the film went bankrupt shortly after its completion, and by the time the masterpiece got back into the hands of a company that understood its magic, years later, the rights to the music—from high-profile artists like Janis Joplin, Nico, and Bob Dylan—had expired. That’s why Cold Water is only now getting a U.S. theatrical run, 24 years later. It will also soon have a Criterion Collection home release.

Couldn’t Assayas have just replaced the songs, gotten the rights cleared, and released the film earlier? Well, no. “The songs are the screenplay,” he says. “With their pace, their energy, I structured the whole [party] scene around the songs. I didn’t feel the scene and do the music on top.” This is, after all, the director who made an entire movie out of Sonic Youth needle drops (Demonlover), set a montage of international film icon Maggie Cheung running around in a leather catsuit to “Tunic (Song for Karen)” (Irma Vep), and carved out a concert sequence for Metric’s “Dead Disco” (Clean). Though his Cold Water song selections veer more towards boomer rock than the punk that would emerge later in the ’70s, Assayas thinks of the film as a “punk rock take” on the decade: “It kind of has an angle of violence, but the ’70s also had a creative, profound, spiritual dimension to it.”

Cold Water, which Assayas also wrote, revolves around two teenage delinquent lovers, Gilles and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen, a familiar face in French film and one of the few professional actors on set), as they aimlessly drift through their adolescent years with uncaring parents, until they decide to run away together. It starts with a shoplifting scene, in which they steal Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Deep Purple records and get caught, leading Christine’s father to send her to a clinic. She’s an angsty teen rebel whose cries for help are dealt with via drugs and strict discipline.

Gilles comes from a more stable family, who belong to a comfortable middle class, but when his father floats the idea of boarding school, he and his girlfriend turn to each other for escape. For the same crime, they’re punished differently because of their upbringings and societal statuses, but the film is also about the disconnect between parent and child, the latter belonging to France’s post-revolution generation. Assayas says the film is partially autobiographical, as he was 17 in 1972, shoplifted records, and had conversations with his father that mirrored those Gilles had with his.

After the brief Roxy Music scene in the beginning, the movie remains music-less for a long time, as Gilles and Christine’s lives diverge into quiet family dramas. They reunite in the anticlimactic yet climactic party scene, a sort of nihilist utopia where kids dance and do drugs. This is when the film’s soundtrack becomes one hit after another. Janis Joplin’s cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” gets the party started as the camera pans across the room, at the characters gathered at this commune. It zeroes in on Christine, an outsider even among outsiders, eternally pouty with stringy hair. She takes a pair of scissors and chops away at her mane—a trademark signifier of drastic change in a woman’s life. The scissors are later used as a different kind of weapon, when she stabs a girl at the party after being told not to cut her hair. Christine will always look for an act of rebellion against authoritative voices in her life.

Virginie Ledoyen as Christine. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

After this violent (though not fatal) moment, the film reaches a new phase of freedom. While all of Christine’s friends think she should be sent back to the clinic, Gilles finds her at the party and hugs her in a silently understanding manner. After Donovan’s “Cosmic Wheels,” Alice Cooper’s all-too-appropriate “School’s Out” soundtracks images of teens packing pipes with weed, and while Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” briefly plays, smoky coughs fill in spaces where dialogue is spare. Later, teens slow-dance to Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” before the big dance scene around the bonfire set to CCR’s “Up Around the Bend.” Later we hear Uriah Heep’s “Easy Livin’” and Nico’s husky voice croon over “Janitor of Lunacy.” It’s a meticulously curated but not forced-feeling playlist, genuine and of its time.

“It‘s a time capsule, but there’s something universal about the film because there’s this thing about the teenage years being both about the end of something and the beginning of something else,” Assayas says. “Something‘s dying, you‘re saying goodbye to your childhood, and you‘re becoming a young adult. So it‘s a moment of rupture. I think that‘s why when you tell stories about teenagers, there’s always something melancholic about it. Even though they have the energy and stamina of youth, there’s something important that they are leaving behind.”

By the time the flame of the party dies down and the morning comes around, Gilles has lost his virginity to Christine. As the rebellious soundtrack of the night before fades away, the sobering words of Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy” seem to endure: “Janitor of lunacy, identify my destiny.” Something has been left behind, but they’re faced with a liberated path forward, one that can only be sustained by the blind optimism of youth.


Cold Water opens today (April 27) at the IFC Center in New York and May 18 at L.A.’s Laemmle Royal Theater, to be followed by a nationwide rollout.

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