Review: On First U.S. Release, 1994’s Cold Water is Best for Assayas Devotees

In recent years, writer/director Olivier Assayas has become one of the most reliable filmmakers on the international scene, with such stunners as Demonlover, Clouds of Sils Maria, and last year’s magnificent Personal Shopper. As interest in his back catalog grows, someone realized that one of his earlier landmark works, 1994’s Cold Water, never got a proper theatrical run in the United States—a fact that has been rectified with this 4K restoration finally making its way to U.S. screens.

Cold Water

Image courtesy of Janus Films

I’ll admit, I’ve never been a fan of films about troubled teens whose only pain in life would appear to be being bored with too much privilege, and this certainly seems to be the case with teenager Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet, playing a stand-in for the filmmaker). Set in the early 1970s complete with a particularly rocking soundtrack, Cold Water follows Gilles and his girlfriend Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) who don’t even bat an eye as they lie, cheat and steal their way through every facet of their lives and play the victim whenever they get caught or punished.

It becomes clear that Christine is likely emotionally unbalanced and needs help; of course, Gilles thinks that her being sent to a mental facility is just her parents’ way of keeping them apart, so he breaks her out and they go to a party, the likes of which has rarely been captured on film—it’s more of a riot, but why put a label on it?

Assayas has a real gift for capturing the essence of these two characters and their equally aimless friends as they bounce from one act of juvenile aggression to another. Ledoyen keeps the film afloat with her devastatingly primal performance as a girl convinced that her life is being controlled by the adults in her world, who seek to destroy what is special and unique about her.

There are times when Cold Water is heartbreaking, especially as we begin to realize that many of the adults in their lives are actually attempting to help them with their feelings of emptiness and inner turmoil. But with each terrible decision, I grew more and more frustrated with this young couple so inside their own heads that they can’t even contemplate a world in which they allow others to help heal them. The seeds of themes that Assayas will visit later in his career are quite clear, but in this raw form, it’s a tough viewing experience.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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