Monday, October 03, 2005


Cold Water

Olivier Assayas, 1994.

Screened Friday, September 30th, at the Northwest Film Forum.

Score: 10

The NWFF originally screened this movie at the now defunct Little Theatre, where Scott and I saw it about five years ago. We were both pretty blown away, and Scott put it on his top 10 for the decade list. I haven't hashed out the details of my 90's list yet, and I'm not certain it would make it, but I'm quite certain it would make a top 20. On a second viewing, I can confirm that it is, indeed, a masterpiece. It's an ill-fated teen romance film that somehow manages to avoid the twin dangers of sentimentalism and condescention about its subjects. Gilles is by any objective standard a spoiled little rich boy, a fact that Assayas quite wisely refuses to a)moralize about or b)philosophize in any way. I love Catcher in the Rye, but its approach to its protaganist has spawned some less than satifying results over the ensuing decades. Christine's mother and her boyfriend are obviously deficient as parental authorities, but they're by no means monsters. Her mother's selfishness and frustration ring true.

Come to think of it,the primary parent of both Gilles and Christine each only get one scene--Gilles father confronting him about his behavior in school, and Christine's mother searching for her runaway daughter at a party. Each of these scenes are economical gems. They establish the frustrating distance between parent and child in a way that seeks not to aportion blame for the situation, but rather to sketch the particular contours of the size and shape of the gulf that lies between them.

The camerawork is mostly handheld (before it was a cliche) and it works to great effect. There are a lot of tight shots, as if the camera was another restless teenager anxiously standing around with the subjects. As paradoxical as it sounds I can't help but describe the camera work as "listless prowling"--there's energy to burn, destructive impulses to channel, and no direction whatsoever, and the camera helps us get it. Come to think of it, this sense fits nicely with the the time (1972) as well; the impatience and frustration of 1968 without the illusions of historic meaning or the hope of social change to give it context and direction.

The centerpiece of the film, beggining at around the half-way point, is an all-night party at an abandoned house in the forest, complete with teenagers dancing, getting high, making out, and burning anything they can find in a bonfire. This scene is, I think, what propells this movie from a noteworthy success to a truly great film, among the best of the decade. The party is the scene of Gilles and Christine's reconnection, after a period of involuntary separation. The status quo of their lives appears to be shattering, as she is now a runaway and he is about to be sent to boarding school. The camera in the party scene takes us around the house, prowling listlessly (just as we'd probably be doing if we were 16 and attending the party) and watches the various participants react to the music (the film is set in 1972; we're treated to Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and best of all CCR). The music directs them aimlessly; Getting high to Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door," making out to Cohen's "Avalanche", but when that record is interrupted mid-song for CCR's "Up Around the Bend" the opening guitar riff sends them bounding into the air, looking for something to burn. I never attended any parties like this as a teenager, nor was I ever particularly angsty or prone to meaningless destruction, but this scene makes me feel like I did, and was. One of my co-attendees was disturbed by the nihilism and destructive energy of this scene (and the film as a whole) and while I can understand I can't agree, at least not entirely. Assayas and his roaming camera are keen observers of the insular, listless, disconnected and frustrating world of his subjects. What we make of this world is up to us, but the film doesn't inspire me to try to make anything of it at all, but to simply observe it, and admire how artfully and compellingly it has been crafted.

There are at least half a dozen other scenes worthy of exigesis (the final scene is delicately and perfectly executed, and it's absolutely heartbreaking), but I've said enough. Aside from the deeply flawed and ill-conceived Demonlover (the failure of this film even extends to the Sonic Youth soundtrack, and I say this as someone who often finds himself defending that band's most thorough descents into wankery), everything Assayas has done is well worth watching, but this is his masterpiece. It's not available on VHS or DVD, so if your local arthouse theatre ever screens it, go see it, thank them, and then thank me.

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