Criterion Month: The Flame of Youth in Olivier Assayas’ ‘Cold Water’

Janus Films

L’eau froide (Cold Water), directed by Olivier Assayas, admirable paints the angst of youth against the backdrop of Paris in the early 1970s, and with Assayas’ groundbreaking camera work, he creates a beautiful metaphor of teenage rebellion. Cold Water is unique amongst the director’s filmography as the film is split into two noticeably different halves, with the first half setting up the raw, uncontrollable emotion that fuels the character’s decisions in the second half.

Within the first half of the film, we are introduced to our lead characters, Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), sentenced to a boarding school and a mental institution, respectively, after being labeled as rebels not worth saving. After the two learn their fate, the fire of teenage angst inspires them to run away to the abandoned mansions on the outskirts of Paris. It is here, in the latter half of Cold Water that Assayas’ camera work flourishes, giving the film a relaxed structure that beautifully mirrors the character’s desires of freedom. The relaxed nature of the second half of the film is a distinct, new filmmaking technique that broke the traditional French storytelling style.

Cyprien Fouquet as Gilles and Virginie Ledoyen as Christine. Photo courtesy of Janus Films

Much of this latter, free-flowing portion of the film consists of a party which Assayas captures using a handheld camera in a few long-takes. As characters enter and exit the frame, the camera work, despite the conscious placement by Assayas, is unnoticeable and feels natural. One of these shots is Christine at the peak of her agony in front of a small fire. Assayas lingers on the shot, without cutting, as Christine sits in front of the blazing fire.

The untamed fire directly mirrors Christine’s burning pain. While the characters feel controlled by their parents and the fire of teenage rebellion burns within them, the long takes provide a contrast to the oppressive environment with an authentic, yet open feeling. Later in the night, the characters gather around a large bonfire outside of the house. As some teenagers pass around a hash pipe, others take turns throwing various furniture into the flame. The flame of youth burns bright within each character as they, quite literally, fuel their angst.

Virginie Ledoyen as Christine. Photo Courtesy of Janus Films.

The overall vibe of the party and the backbone of the teenagers’ attitudes in the film is powered by American rock music, and is strikingly like the emotions evoked in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which came out around the same time. Despite their experiences taking place thousands of miles away from each other, Assayas and Linklater’s retrospective outlook on their teenage years during the 1970s is almost identical.

The transnational bond of rock music during this time is incredibly powerful, and truly was the soundtrack to teenage angst across the globe. However, Linklater’s film is the American antithesis of Assayas’ film with Linklater’s signature escapism. Assayas forces his characters to face and accept their bitter, yet realistic reality, while Linklater allows his characters to exist in a world outside of their problems. Each perspective is directly linked to the outlook of their respective countries during this period.

Virginie Ledoyen as Christine. Photo Courtesy of Janus Films.

At the end of the party, Christine tells Gilles that she wants to run away to a commune in the north of France. The two run away together, but Gilles doesn’t know that there is no commune and Christine is going to kill herself. In the final scene of the film, Assayas uses the same technique from the party scene of free-floating long-take in the moments before Christine kills herself. The shot begins on the rushing, freezing cold river and slowly pans toward Christine standing in the middle of the water, contemplating her decision. As she walks, she slowly takes off her clothes, exposing herself to the harsh reality of their environment. Her nudity represents the point where she crosses the threshold and follows through on her desire to end her life.

Assayas’ use of fire to describe the burning, uncontrollable emotions within Christine during the party scene are in direct conflict with the swift, cold water that extinguishes Christine’s flame at the end of the film. Now, when Gilles wakes up and discovers Christine’s suicide note, Assayas’ final shot is another long take that zooms out and shows the isolation of Gilles in his new, unknown environment. The shot directly mirrors the isolation of Antoine Doinel at the end of Francoise Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. In Gilles’ case, the cold, surging water of the river is his rude awakening to his new reality without Christine. In each character, the fire was representative of the universal teenage angst, but the cold water was representative of the different ways these teenage feelings are met with reality. Every person deals with the same feelings as a teenager, but the rude awakening to the real world manifests itself in different ways for each person. The fates of Gilles and Christine are just two of the infinite outcomes when one’s flame of youth is extinguished.

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