‘Cold Water’ – lost youth in seventies France on Criterion Channel

Olivier Assayas, one of the bright lights of the New New Wave of French Cinema, made his first breakthrough with Cold Water (France, 1994), a silent cry of teenage alienation and angry rebellion.

It’s 1972 in a town far from the bustle and culture Paris. Virginie Ledoyen is Christine, a troubled girl with a history of violence rebelling against her domineering father (Jackie Berroyer), who has had her committed once and promises to again. Cyprien Fouquet is her boyfriend Gilles, the son of a wealthy single dad (László Szabó), who shoplifts for kicks.

This simple narrative—Christine is caught in Gilles’ latest heist, committed to a psychiatric hospital, and escapes with plans to run away with Gilles to some never never land artist colony—is rich in detail and resonates with the inarticulate, impulsive passion of defiant, angry young kids.

At the heart of the film are long, lazy, unbroken shots of wandering characters like lost souls in an alien landscape: Gilles bicycling through a misty forest, Christine lost in a party, Gilles absently slashing the seats of a city bus before finally settling into one. And in the film’s brilliant final act, an all-night party at an abandoned chateau in the woods, the gliding camera weaves through groups of teenage kids drinking, smoking, and dancing, sometimes settling for a second, often simply surveying.

Assayas creates a ragged beauty from these moments. He appreciates the texture of time passing in a way rarely seen in American films and the expressive moments and the edgy mix of intimacy and disconnection creates an undertow of tension that builds though the arc of the evening. The accumulated frustrations erupt in minor acts of random destruction until the dawn removes the cover of night and returns them to their lives. All of them, that is, but two.

There’s no redemptive romance in Assayas’s vision of a lost generation of adolescent kids, just an intense need to express the inexpressible and a final cry of inarticulate desperation.

In French with English subtitles. Not rated, features brief nudity.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Cold Water (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Cold Water (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film feature contemporary and archival interviews with the filmmakers and actors and a foldout insert with an essay by Girish Shambu.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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