With both of his recent critical darlings, Personal Shopper & Clouds of Sils Maria, I’ve found myself mildly frustrated with the cinema of Olivier Assayas. Both of those films were hinged on incredible performances (especially from Kristen Stewart) and intriguing narrative conceits, but both also felt just short of greatness as completed works. In particular, I remember leaving Personal Shopper last year thinking that Assayas would one day deliver a movie I would totally fall in love with, but that he wasn’t quite there yet. What I didn’t know to consider at the time is that I shouldn’t be looking to Assayas’s future, but rather to his already rich past. While I assumed Sils Maria & Personal Shopper were the films of a young artist still honing their craft, it turns out Assayas has been directing feature films since the 1980s; they’ve just been outside my genre trash-loving radar. A recent local screening of his 1994 indie romance Cold Water has, in one picture, convinced me I’ve had Assayas all wrong. I now see his current crop of near-great films as a transitional adjustment period, the first stage of an evolution in the craft he already honed decades ago. I can’t say with certainty that Assayas’s best work is ahead of or behind him, because there is a much larger catalog of films than I was aware of to indicate that trajectory. However, I can report that he has made at least one great film before, one that relies on the same tactics & tones as the two titles that recently left me wanting.
Cold Water is a kind of 1970s rock n’ roll spin on a classic Romeo & Juliet teen tragedy. Forever understated, Assayas delivers the least commercial version of that premise imaginable, telling a slow, stubbornly quiet tale of pointless teenage rebellion & aimless romance the exact way you’d expect a 1990s French indie to. Two teenage reprobates on the outskirts of Paris seek excitement in petty vandalism & minor shoplifting, staging small-scale rebellions against their increasingly frustrated caretakers at home & school. At the threat of being quarantined in boarding school & mental institutions, they make a foolish pack to run away together to a mythical artist’s colony in the frostbitten provinces, risking their lives for a utopia that may or may not exist. Before they begin this fool’s journey, however, they pause to enjoy an out of control teenage rager where kids form their school & community party to rock records, smoke hash, and destroy everything in sight with an ever-growing fire. It’s in that chaotic centerpiece that Assayas pulls back in scope to explain that these two lovelorn teenage runaways are not at all atypical. The just happen to be their social circle’s scapegoats, the two who always get caught while everyone in their vicinity indulges in the exact same teenage depravity, undetected. Cold Water is an intimate love story between two naïve, self-destructive fools, but it’s also a larger portrait of an entire generation of aimless, frustrated rebel children itching to break free of the societal doldrums of the early 1970s.
Maybe in part because I’m used to these types of stories being told in American & British contexts, I was a little perplexed by Cold Water’s temporal setting not being six to ten years later than its early 70s hippiedom. Watching these kids smash & burn their surroundings in bratty, frustrated rebellion to a soundtrack defined by the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival is a little disorienting, especially when they start pogoing & slam-dancing at the climactic bonfire party. Cold Water is so obviously a punk story to me; it just happens to be set to the sounds of pre-punk hippies. Regardless of what’s spinning on the turntable, however, Assayas achieves a blissful hedonism in that party’s nihilistic teenage chaos. It plays like a sprawling, hazy predecessor to the rager that opens Lynne Ramsay’s similarly quiet, nihilistic Morvern Callar. The majority of Cold Water is guided by hushed, conversational gloom as neither teens, their teachers, nor their guardians know what to do with their frustrated, rebellions energy. There’s no proper score to the film outside its diegetic needle drops & rock radio tune-ins, so that everything outside its loud, vibrant, destructive party sequence feels dead & hollow by comparison. Even the central romance doesn’t feel especially impassioned or life-changing to the two protagonists outside their need to feel something in the cultural, emotional void of their surroundings. Chasing the high of that emotional rush is an ultimately tragic impulse, so maybe the worn-out hippie melancholy of Woodstock-era classic rock is exactly what this film needs. In the transition from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” to Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” you can somewhat feel the tone Assayas was reaching for; it’s just difficult to shake the feeling that these kids are punks who had not yet heard the sounds that would later define them.
Something I’m coming to admire in Olivier Assayas is that every film I see from him feels like a young artist actively trying to figure themselves & their craft out on the screen. Just like how I assumed Personal Shopper & The Clouds of Sils Maria were the works of a fresh-faced filmmaker chipping away at future greatness, I could just as easily see Cold Water as being a debut feature from someone young & hungry to make Important Art. It’s not the shoplifting, vandalism, or teenage-runaway romance that makes me feel that way either. It’s more that Assayas appears open to messiness, haunting quiet, and unresolved emotional crises in his movies, having made no apparent effort to tidy up these impulses into more controlled work in the past two decades. There is a kind of coldness to that restraint in his more recent works, however. Assayas’s aimless wanderings feel much more appropriate to the pointless, frustrated teenage rebellions of Cold Water than they do to the adult ennui of his more recent work; or at least they feel more effective in that context. Heighted teenage rebellion lends itself well to his oddly youthful, consistent sense of messy, open, vulnerable gloom. As I further dig around in his decades of back-catalog features, I might make a point to seek out any titles I can find with teenage, lovelorn protagonists; it’s thematic territory that feels at home with his style. It also helps that Cold Water allows those teens a slash & burn catharsis in the bonfire party centerpiece, an emotional release he hasn’t afforded his more recent, adult protagonists.