Teenage Rebel of the Week: Cold Water
Updated: Mar 2
This piece was published to coincide with our screening of Cold Water 01/03/2023 at The Garden Cinema.
“I’m the least nostalgic person”. This personal reflection by Olivier Assayas goes some way to explaining Cold Water - an exercise in autobiography that constantly pushes against the desire to romanticise being young. It’s a jagged, volatile film that captures the disorientation of adolescence with unflinching honesty.
Cold Water is one of nine entries in the French anthology series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge… (to all the boys and girls of their age). The series, named after a Francoise Hardy song, saw various French directors make hour-long films about the music they grew up listening to, adhering to the following parameters:
The main theme must be adolescence
The films should be set between 1960 and 1990
A party sequence must be included, set to rock music from the chosen era
Shot on 16mm only
Assayas’ entry hews close to his own experiences. It follows a pair of miscreant teenagers, Gilles (Cyprien Fouqet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), living on the outskirts of Paris in the early seventies. Coming of age in the shadow of 1968, they compulsively resist authority but articulate no coherent worldview beyond that. Throughout the film, adults insist on the sanctity of the European art canon, but to the kids, American and English rock music is far more interesting - providing a lifeline to a world beyond their stifling suburban milieu.
Arte, who commissioned the project, had a working relationship with Sony Music that allowed for generous licensing privileges, but these didn’t extend to a theatrical release. Assayas had the option of changing the music for an easier time getting the film a wider distribution, but in his own words: “the songs are the screenplay”. Assayas’ unwillingness to compromise on the soundtrack meant Cold Water mired in relative obscurity for decades, until Janus Films renegotiated with the necessary record labels and restored the film in 4K, finally allowing it to receive theatrical and home video distribution. Claire Denis’ US Go Home, another phenomenal entry in the same anthology has never received an official release owing to similar licensing issues. Fortunately, it’s on YouTube in full.
For a sense of how integral the songs are to the film - an early scene sees Gilles and his younger brother tinkering with a radio, trying to find a signal. Eventually, they succeed, and Virginia Plain by Roxy Music crackles through the tiny speaker. Assayas chose the song for what he felt was its proto-punk vibe. The song, the band’s first single, was born out of Bryan Ferry’s background as an art student - and rings of the dandyish swagger he would come to embody. Rather than any kind of hippie moralising - the song represents an embrace of glamour and cool as virtues in their own right. This choice situates the characters in a purgatory between the utopian idealism of the sixties and the liberating nihilism of punk. Ferry’s lyrics also obliquely allude to the film’s themes and origins. “You’re so sheer, you’re so chic/Teenage rebel of the week” sardonically brings to mind the standard issue restlessness endemic to all adolescents, and the televisual nature of the film itself.
After this scene, music is conspicuously absent until the climactic party - which plays out with wall-to-wall tracks reflecting the shifting moods of the characters. This extended sequence reaches its ecstatic apex with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Up Around the Bend playing at full blast while the kids build an enormous bonfire and dance around the inferno. It culminates with images of hungover teenagers pissing in the stark morning light and huddling under coats and blankets while Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy dominates the soundscape. Assayas pays close attention to the destruction the kids enact, and the bleakness of the morning after. This is not the hazy summer night of Dazed and Confused - it’s a significantly more frank depiction of teenage revelry.
The film shares more than a little DNA with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in its centering of wayward adolescents, but Assayas has bristled at the comparisons between him and his compatriots to the French New Wave auteurs. Assayas is a filmmaker who has always embraced the present and resisted the tangle of homage and nostalgia. Irma Vep perceptively examines the tension between contemporary film culture and its history, Demonlover explores Assayas’ interest in the internet and new media, and Personal Shopper rose to the challenge of how to depict smartphones and texting in a way that felt both believable and cinematic. Cold Water, while very much a period piece, lacked the budget to fully realise the seventies (look out for the supermarket stocked with nineties products.) But this gives the film a timeless quality - fascinating considering the conceit seems primed to do the opposite.
Timeless is perhaps an exaggeration, in that moving an FM radio into the perfect sweet spot to tune it to a foreign radio station is an alien activity to anyone who came of age post-millennium. The entire concept of the teenager - invented in the fifties - has been permanently transformed by accelerated advancements in personal technology. But the wholly sincere submission to art and the belief in something as corny as the power of music represents a kind of tragic purity that still holds true.
Assayas taps into the universality of adolescent unrest in ways that transcend generational signifiers. In a Bressonian touch, he sought out actors who had “never seen a camera”, prioritising authenticity. While Ledoyen had worked as a child actress, her performance feels remarkably naturalistic, at times reaching a feral intensity. Fouqet’s cherubic face is equally expressive. They don’t feel like kids playing dress up - they’re consistently truthful performers: flawed and sympathetic throughout.
Considering Cold Water’s storied history, it feels like a minor miracle to see it in its current form. It’s a textured, melancholy portrait of adolescent ennui. As the title suggests, it's a film that rests on elemental imagery: a coursing, unforgiving river, and a towering blaze. This is reflected in the soundtrack - a key scene sees the couple reunite while Leonard Cohen’s doom-laden voice rings out through the abandoned mansion; “I stepped into an avalanche/It covered up my soul”. Cold Water works in a primal register, capturing the raw intensity of young love with uncompromising force. Teenagers' unquestioning belief in their own feelings is what makes them interesting subjects for cinema, and few have explored this quite like Assayas.