‘Cold Water’: Olivier Assayas’ Masterpiece of Teenage Alienation

Aimless teens party like it’s the end of the world in Olivier Assayas’ ‘Cold Water’

“That’s life and you have to act like an adult.” ~ ‘Cold Water’

There’s a point at every party when the mood suddenly turns melancholy. The recognition that the party will end kicks in, and as much fun as you may be having, your pleasure in the moment is ruined by the inevitability of its passing. Each shared cigarette, each stimulating conversation about cinema, each exchanged flirtation with your new crush, is ephemeral.

No film captures this mood as well as Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994). The prolific Cahiers du Cinéma critic turned filmmaker has churned out one acclaimed art-house hit after another since his debut Disorder (1986), including contemporary classics like Summer Hours (2008) and Something in the Air (2012). Cold Water is his unrivaled masterpiece.

Long unseen, the Criterion Collection finally made Cold Water available for the first time to most cinephiles in 2018. The film follows troubled teenagers Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Giles (Cyprien Fouquet), who love each other and not much else. They both come from different backgrounds, she a working-class girl of divorced parents, he an upper-class boy of bourgeois privilege, and bond over shared feelings of angst, anger, and alienation.

Cold Water is rightfully celebrated for its 30-minute party sequence, a major achievement in Assayas’ career, in which Giles, Christine, and other teenagers dance to rock and roll music, take drugs, and destroy the setting around them by smashing windows and throwing furniture into a raging fire. It’s a brilliant sequence that showcases the unique allure of teenage abandon, the particular period in life when you’re old enough to know about the world’s unfairness, but young enough not to have to engage with it. The exuberant freedom of being young is outmatched only by the elegiac feeling that, at some point, you’ll have to grow up.

And grow up is just what Giles is called to do, in the heartbreaking final scene when he comes face to face with adulthood and all the dashed hopes it brings.

At the party, Giles agrees to run away with Christine and live together in an artist’s community, the kind of fairy tale that only makes sense when you’re young and in love. After an intimate night by a secluded lakeside, in which Giles and Christine make love by the water, he awakens to find her gone. She leaves behind her clothes and a piece of paper, but nothing appears to be written on it. Where did she go?

Before we get an answer, Assayas abruptly ends the film. All we’re left with is Giles’ literal wake-up call that the fairy tale he and Christine created can’t last. The promise of a closed-off life with her, isolated from everything they hate, will never be realized.

Assayas’ eclectic body of work transcends genres, continents, and languages, and makes the case for a transnational understanding of cinema. A common theme he explores is the reality of time passing and things ending, and characters who are forced to confront this. Many of his characters start off motionless, caught between a world that was and a world that will never be, and the circumstances in the films slowly awaken them from a state of stagnation.

Something in the Air, one of his most underappreciated films, similarly follows a group of meandering students in the aftermath of May 1968. The film’s main character, Giles (Clément Métayer), is caught up in the political turmoil of the era, but soon starts to feel disengaged with the movement and his fellow comrades, including his girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton).

It’s not just that the lovers in Something in the Air share the same names as those in Cold Water. Both films are a forceful reckoning of the riots, and the realization that the political goals, as admirable as they may have been, were not achieved. Eventually, Giles leaves Christine behind and devotes his life not to politics, but to art, and becomes a filmmaker.

Like Cold Water, Something in the Air is an autobiographical portrait of Assayas’ youth, and both male protagonists, stand-ins for the auteur himself, are forced to accept the end of an era, and all the personal relationships it encompassed, and adapt to a new future.

Celebrated for his complex female characters, Assayas has collaborated with two of cinema’s most adventurous actresses, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. In each of these collaborations, Assayas is interested in the concept of change, and Binoche and Stewart often play women who struggle to move on from the past.

In Assayas’ first collaboration with Binoche, Summer Hours, he captures the inability of a French family to accept their mother’s death and deal with the belongings she left behind. The belongings bring to mind memories from a different time, perhaps childhood, when life was easier and relationships between the siblings weren’t as strained. Summer Hours is an aching film about the ties that bind families, the places that shape them, and how the touch of one dusty old object in the cellar can summon a flood of feelings.

Kent Jones’ beautiful essay, “Summer Hours: A Time to Live and a Time to Die,” explains the poignant message Assayas expresses: “As is the case for all of us, the flow of life never halts, something that is understood on every level of this film.” In Summer Hours, the siblings don’t want to settle the lingering question of what to do with their mother’s belongings, because doing so would force them to confront long suppressed resentments and unresolved grudges.

The film’s final scene, in which the siblings’ children throw a party at the house with their teenage friends, conveys Assayas’ feelings about transience. The house will have new habitants, and new memories will become attached to its spaces, new significance attributed to its artifacts. What was once owned by the siblings is no longer theirs. They must learn to let go.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) reunites Assayas with Binoche, and also begins his rewarding collaboration with Stewart. The film is about an aging actress, Maria Enders (Binoche), who faces her mortality when introduced to the young rising star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Like most older actresses, Maria’s celebrity is fading, and a new generation of stars is starting to steal her spotlight.

The main conflict revolves around the revival of a play that made Maria famous twenty years ago. This time, though, she’s asked to perform the older part, and Jo-Ann will perform the younger part. Maria is at first reluctant to participate, and it’s easy to see why. The younger part launched Maria’s stardom and has long defined her sense of self-worth. She’s not ready to give the part up to another actress, because doing so would mean she acknowledges that her celebrity is on the decline.

Stewart plays Valentine, Maria’s loyal assistant who often runs lines with her. In a daring cinematic cliffhanger by Assayas, Valentine suddenly disappears from the film in the third act. One minute they’re hiking in the Alps, debating the motivations of the characters in the play. The next minute Valentine abruptly abandons Maria in the mountains, leaving her all alone in the frame. What happened?

A delicious nod to L’Avventura (1960), Assayas deliberately opens Valentine’s disappearance up to numerous interpretations. Any of them could work, but if you situate Clouds of Sils Maria within Assayas’ body of work, one interpretation seems to make the most sense, especially given Assayas’ sustained interest in the tension between stagnation and change.

Maria is in denial for most of the film, stubbornly clinging to past career achievements, unable to accept Jo-Ann’s newfound celebrity status. As the film unfolds, with the encouragement of Valentine Maria slowly comes around, and not only does she agree to perform the older part, but she also begins to acknowledge her new position. Perhaps Valentine’s disappearance, then, is the moment Maria fully recognizes the reality of her new future. Assayas visually signifies her final decision to age out of the spotlight. She now realizes that she can’t return to the past and she can’t recreate what once was. She doesn’t need Valentine anymore to help her navigate show business, because her place in show business isn’t what it used to be.

Assayas’ most recent collaboration with Binoche, Non-Fiction (2018), at first appears to be a trifle, and was marketed as one of those breezy French comedy of manners in which bourgeois intellectuals have affairs and discuss art, culture, and politics. Non-Fiction certainly contains all of this, but if you dig a bit deeper, it becomes clear that Assayas is continuing his exploration of characters who are stuck in the past.

In this case, Non-Fiction revolves around acclaimed author Alain (Guillaume Canet), who hires a young woman Laurie (Christa Théret) to help him survive the transition to digital. The film features many conversations about the literary merits, or lack thereof, of e-publishing, and once again finds Assayas’ characters stubbornly clinging to a bygone era. By the end, one can’t help but believe that Assayas, as critical as he sometimes can be of popular culture, recognizes the pointlessness of a battle that’s already been lost.

Personal Shopper (2016), Assayas’ second collaboration with Stewart, is one of his most powerful statements on the subject of loss. He cleverly incorporates the supernatural to show Maureen’s (Stewart) inability to move on from the death of her twin brother Lewis.

Like Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper is shrouded in mystery. Eventually, Maureen receives text messages from an unknown number, whom she believes to be the spirit of her dead brother. She begins to hear noises in the house, and wonders if Lewis is trying to communicate with her. Assayas uses elements of the supernatural genre to symbolically show Maureen’s grief. It’s not a question of whether or not Lewis is reaching out to her, but more that she’s still haunted by his death, which puts her in a state of emotional paralysis.

For an ambiguous art film, Personal Shopper ends with a strong sense of closure. Maureen still feels Lewis’ presence, and in a strangely moving final scene that Assayas somehow pulls of, she asks the spirit a series of questions, accepting one single thud sound to mean “yes,” two thuds to mean “no.” When she asks repeatedly, “Lewis, is it you?” she doesn’t hear anything. When she asks, “Or is it just me?” she hears one single thud. “Yes, it’s just you,” the spirit tells her.

What do we make of this? The single thud of “yes” by the spirit aurally conveys Maureen’s change. Maureen at last will accept Lewis’ death, and the final message from the spirit, that Lewis is not there and there’s nothing she can do to bring him back, is one she can’t unhear.

This brings us back to Cold Water, which concludes with Assayas’ signature symbolism. Christine’s disappearance is not dissimilar to Valentine’s. Both are abrupt, but at the same time, offer significant closure.

For the rest of his life, Giles will have to carry on without Christine and the escape from reality she represents. He can’t run away from his problems anymore. The party’s over and it’s time for him to grow up and become an adult.

The title of the film, Cold Water, tells us everything. Cold water can revitalize the senses and shock someone out of a stupor. In one way or another, all of Assayas’ characters are baptized in cold water, and their submergence signals a new beginning.

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