A long time before French filmmaker Olivier Assayas gave us Something in the Air (Something in the Air presents vibrant picture of youth in tumult) there was his little seen 1994 movie Cold Water. Both have been described as autobiographical works. But the chance to compare the films was difficult for late-comers to Assayas’ career, as Cold Water never found distribution. Janus Films has recently stepped up to fix the age-long issue of expensive music rights that kept the film from finding distribution. Since March, film festival attendees have been able to catch a 4K restoration of the film in select cities. Now Cold Water has begun a series of limited theatrical runs, including one coming up here in South Florida courtesy of the Coral Gables Art Cinema.
Those familiar with Something in the Air will notice strong similarities between the 2013 film and this early work by Assayas, including a party at an abandoned mansion that goes out of control and a ‘70s era soundtrack that speaks to the film’s setting in time. But there’s something more intimate and raw about Cold Water. Whereas Something in the Air figured the May 1968 protests that nearly overthrew the French government into its story, Cold Water is much less political, it makes no mention of May nor do its characters announce any concerns about it. That does not mean the film lacks any social awareness. The early 1970s was a period of dashed hopes in Western democratic civilization following the end of the “flower power” era, marked by protests that turned violent, in the late 1960s. Though both Cold Water and Something in the Air deal in some degree with disillusionment, one could say Cold Water is the bleaker of the two movies, as its disillusionment stems from something more intimate: the bumbling, burgeoning love between two teenage delinquents.
The film’s conception came from an intimate place as an idea for TV. Assayas was among several up-and-coming filmmakers, including Claire Denis, who were asked to produce an hour-long movie about their teen years. Music from that part of their lives was to be used to help capture the era. Assayas, however, preferred to make a full-length feature film and asked producers to fund a 90-minute feature that would still follow the rules of the project. “I was not interested in the concept of shooting something that is autobiographical and just having it be something that is aired on television once in 1994,” he says in the movie’s new press notes. “I needed to make something that was a bit more lasting.”
The movie follows two young lovers. Cyprien Fouquet made his acting debut playing Assayas’ surrogate, Gilles. His love interest Christine is played by Virginie Ledoyen. These characters’ names also happen to be that of the lovers at the heart of Something in the Air. We meet the young couple lifting a stack of records at a department store. Gilles gets away but Christine is detained. In mostly parallel narratives, the family strife both endure is brought to light, until they reunite at the house party where most of the film’s soundtrack, featuring Dylan, Nico and Creedence, unfolds.
The camera work shot on 16mm by Denis Lenoir is mostly very restless, reflective of the tumultuous youth at the center of the film. It also recalls the dogma style of filmmaking that popular among indie filmmakers in the early to mid-90s. In a poetic move, whether intentional or not, the camera grows more still as Christine comes to arrive to her destiny. Gilles, naive with affection, accepts an invitation to accompany her to a supposed commune.
The film ends on a disturbingly stark image that speaks to a nihilism beyond the disillusionment of Something in the Air, a film that referenced social issues and even Assayas’ career. It grounds the story in something more earthy and real. Cold Water, however, reveals a concern for something more startling and primal: aimless, emotional youth left to their own devices. It’s a picture that speaks to what’s so fearsome of that period between childhood and adulthood, where — no matter the era — disillusionment can take hold in frightful, personal ways.