Saturday, March 16, 2019


Sometimes I just can’t find my way into a review.

It’s been five days since I watched In the Heat of the Night, and I’ve spent those days skulking past my computer, afraid to make eye contact with the screen, completely at a loss how to begin writing about Norman Jewison’s 1967 cop drama. A landmark of its time, and a template for many well-meaning race-related pictures to come, In the Heat of the Night is a crackling good film. It reminds me of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder [review] in how engrossing it is, how easy to watch, how transcendent of its own genre.

But what perspective do I bring? I can acknowledge it’s a classic. I can graze up against the deeper issues of 1960s race relations and compare it to today, particularly the healthy distrust of law enforcement. I can talk about how Jewison avoids the folly of so many by neither making his black cop a saint nor his white cop a pure devil, how they are flawed men hampered by their own pride, and thus there is no real vindication or redemption for either, they just carry on. Surely all of this has already been said, though. Mayhap I am better served just cracking this process open and getting on with it.

Here’s the easy thing to explain: the plot. A man is found dead face down in the streets of Sparta, a small Mississippi town. The victim is a real estate developer from out of state looking to build a factory in the area. It would change the lives of the unemployed poor, but also disrupt the town’s established economy. In short, there are a few rich white folks that would rather not see the system altered.

Coincidentally, Homicide Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, A Raisin in the Sun [review]) gets stranded in Sparta on a layover waiting for his train to Pennsylvania. At first he is arrested by an overzealous cop (Warren Oates, Two-Lane Blacktop [review]) who finds an unknown African American with a wallet full of cash suspicious, but once his identity is revealed, Tibbs is asked to participate in solving the murder. Newly appointed Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger, Jubal [review]; On the Waterfront) would prefer not to take Tibbs’ help, fearing it will be more trouble than its worth, but once Tibbs takes the case between his teeth, Gillespie has little say. No one does, not even Sparta’s roving packs of violent racists or the brittle eccentric living in the big house on the outskirts of town. Tibbs won’t stop until the true culprit is in jail.

Poitier and Steiger make a great pair. The former is all forward intensity, and the latter reserved agitation. Gillespie is definitely a racist, but he’s also a pragmatist. One could argue he resents Tibbs as being an interloper from the big city as much as he does his being a black man. It’s a trope now, that the bigoted cop’s saving grace is his adherence to the law, but Steiger avoids caricature. He lives in Gillespie’s skin and isn’t afraid of his bad parts. Likewise, Poitier continues to evolve his own screen presence to keep Tibbs human and not a symbol. He’s the smartest man in the room, but too smart for his own good.

Indeed, the knotted personal drama of the small town is its own education for Tibbs. The murder is almost secondary to the struggles and gossip that informs Sparta’s day to day. Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool [review]) shoots the locales with a gritty vibrancy, never dressing up the shots, letting the people occupy the space. Even Oates’ shit-grinning cop and the petulant ingénue he peeps on (Quentin Dean) have the room to be people. Not very likeable people, but then really, how many of us are? The awesome Lee Grant (Shampoo [review]) also gets a pretty good turn as the dead man’s wife, a determined woman whose sense of personal justice cuts through the petty squabbles.

The only performance that moves close to parody is Larry Gates (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Endicott, the fat cat who runs Sparta from afar. Endicott is a riff on the mythological Confederate gentlemen, full of privilege and regretting progress. Jewison and writer Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure) choose to stage his lone scene in a green house, symbolizing that he is a rare and wilting thing, no longer viable in the open air. This is a cliché we’ve seen before, most notably in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep [review]; here it seems an unnecessary and superfluous brush stroke.

The story of In the Heat of the Night remains every bit as challenging and incisive. The mystery is modern, even if some of the more “scandalous” aspects of it have lost their shock value. You might guess the real bad guy early, but you’ll forget you did amidst all the great character moments that follow. Add to this an ultra cool Quincy Jones score, complete with Ray Charles theme song, and you have a crime classic, its aesthetic perfectly bridging the gap from the squeaky clean studio system and the more grimy 1970s--an in between state that renders In the Heat of the Night truly timeless.

Saturday, March 9, 2019


Sometimes a performance is so transfixing, it overtakes a mediocre movie and elevates it, even as everyone else seems to be operating at half speed. Such is the case of Danny Glover and To Sleep with Anger. No one who sees this film will forget Glover’s performance as Harry, the charming drifter who, even when he’s putting on his best, never seems to be at rest. There is something vibrationally wrong with this man, something that can’t be trusted. As one person describes him, he’s the moon, always eager to show his light side, but never forget that the other side lies in darkness.

To Sleep with Anger is the third film by Charles Burnett, whose 1978 debut, Killer of Sheep, is an important touchstone of independent cinema. There’s likely a lot to dig into when pondering why it took twelve years from that nervy initial effort to this oft-understated drama. (My Brother’s Wedding, released in 1983, sits between them.) The two are very different in tone, but similar in intent; in each, Burnett shows an unvarnished depiction of African American life that was, and arguably still is, rarely seen in cinema. Specifically in To Sleep with Anger, a middle-class family in Los Angeles, but one with deep connections to the traditions and history of its people.

It’s from this past that Harry emerges, having long been absent, to reconnect with his friend Gideon (Paul Butler, a regular on Michael Mann’s Crime Story [review]). Harry is a welcome sight for Gideon and his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice, who later played the Oracle in the Matrix movies), a reminder of old times. Harry brings with him all the shenanigans of misspent youth, and also all the superstitions that the younger generation are letting go. Gideon and Suzie have two boys, Junior (Carl Lumbly, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) and Babe Brother (Law & Order’s Richard Brooks). As these things go, one brother is the responsible golden child, the other the eternal screw-up. They not only don’t have the same beliefs as their parents, but they lack a connection to the oppression that both binds the older generation and haunts them. Harry’s trips down memory lane serves to remind his friends of how things once were.

To Sleep with Anger is essentially a religious parable with Harry serving as a devilish  symbol of temptation. The longer he stays, the more he leeches off the family, and the more he lures Babe Brother towards a life of gambling, drinking, and grift. His presence serves to cause division in the family, and eventually takes a greater toll. Gideon grows ill, and it becomes clear that only one of these men can be in Babe Brother’s life. The path he chooses will essentially be choosing one man’s way over the other’s.

Burnett soft-pedals the religious themes, as he soft pedals just about everything in To Sleep With Anger. He never transforms Harry into a legitimate supernatural being, nor does he fully validate his superstitious rituals. In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of this narrative is how To Sleep with Anger allows room for both Christianity and folklore, with Gideon and Suzie mingling the two.

It’s possible that To Sleep with Anger could have benefitted from that added dose of magic, however. The stakes feel very low throughout, and some of the writing strays so close to a message-driven television movie--with the low-budget aesthetics to match--Burnett might as well have gone for it. There is never any sense of legitimate consequence. Neither Gideon nor Babe Brother seem under any real threat, and only Lumbly brings actual anger to the proceedings, giving Junior some genuine fury in his beef with the little brother that always coasts by.

This might have also given Glover the sort of final scene his performance deserved. He’s all smiles and mysterious stories and seduction throughout, only to have his last scenes feature him capitulating and giving up. For a villain with that kind of tenacious charisma, he steps aside too easily, and it robs To Sleep with Anger of any sense of victory for its other characters. Then again, I suppose that temptation has always been more complex than making the good and moral choice, and that’s why it’s so alluring...and why the alternative can be this boring.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019


One of my favorite TV shows right now is the political news weekly The Circus on Showtime. Given the current climate, the inner workings of the government and the sniping between pundits and our leaders makes for good television, even if that’s about the only positive it pumps into the atmosphere. If nothing else, the clown show of the Trump administration, Congress, and all the rests is grist for entertainment. Comedy programs like The Daily Show or Patriot Act makes all the shenanigans more palatable, while colorfully infuriating characters like Roger Stone prove a perfect subject for a documentary.

At the same time, it’s all so exhausting. At the end of the initial testimony in Michael Cohen’s recent appearance before Congress, Representative Elijah Cummings, who chaired the proceedings, gruffly lamented the state of things and wished we could somehow get back to normal. I felt that, and as a result of feeling it, I wanted to remind myself of what normal looks like.

So why not go back to a more innocent time, 1993, and the documentary The War Room? The film, by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, follows the core of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for Presidency. Run by George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, this successful bid for the White House was the first election I voted in. There’s plenty of nostalgia for me, a feeling that I was there when we all got it right, even if lately it’s hard not to have a little buyer’s remorse as more of President Clinton’s misdeeds come to light. (If you haven’t yet watched the multi-part The Clinton Affair, do so, and maybe chase it with Showtime’s Enemies: The President, Justice, and the FBI, which traces a pattern of corruption and illustrates how little changes over time; episode 4 also looks at the Clinton impeachment.)

Maybe I should have picked a movie I had seen before or had been vetted for me. My expectations were way off. Though the scandal and vitriol of The War Room seems almost quaint in the era of “grab them by the pussy” and “bad hombres,” it feels far from normal. In fact, it may arguably chronicle the end of normal. Ross Perot, cable news, tabloid exposure, spin spin spin...was it the beginning of the end? James Carville now comes off as positively naïve when he gives his staff a pep talk imploring them to fight back against the smears, and predicting that if they do so successfully, it will end that kind of Republican vs. Democrat rhetoric for good. Little did he know that it would only make his opponents come back harder. And one has to wonder if that naïveté was not only shared by Stephanopoulos, but extended to their perception of all of Clinton’s poor choices. The baby-faced, smirking Stephanopoulos only shows a nasty side once: when he’s threatening a wag who has a list of Bill’s alleged extra-marital affairs. I can’t imagine George looking back now and being proud of running up that hill for his boss.

Then again, maybe one shouldn’t rehash The War Room for how things played out after. Hindsight isn’t really 20/20. It’s more skewed than that, adding a sharper focus. If there’s one thing abundantly clear now, it’s that this film is about a small group of true believers, of wonks coming together for a common cause, to put someone in power that they were sure was the right man for the job. And knowing that, watching them scheme and joke and hone their message is fun. It’s the fairy-tale prequel to All the President’s Men, when the Commander in Chief’s troops were willing to do anything to get him elected, and yet still had their scruples (seemingly; that’s the fairy tale part).

Though I am sure that Hegedus and Pennebaker had hours of footage to cull from, including blow-ups and catastrophes, they choose to build their film out of the smaller moments. It’s the mundane that captures their attention, the bemused looks on Carville’s face when George H.W. Bush is insulting his candidate in his TV, or the way they’ll spend ten minutes haggling over the best word to use in a comeback. I am not sure The War Room illuminates the electoral process in a flattering fashion. These minor skirmishes and petty strategies expose it as basically ridiculous, and running a campaign could be the oddest of odd jobs.

If there’s another thing for sure, it’s that no one will ever likely be able to make something like The War Room again. Everyone working on a major campaign, and especially Carville or Stephanopoulos, is far more media savvy these days. They would likely put on too many restrictions, spend too much time playing to the camera; essentially, with a reality TV has-been in the Oval Office, it’s hard not to see all politics as just another facet of the same reality TV that spawned him.

So maybe The War Room is more normal, after all, it’s just not entirely so. And, let’s face it, not much would remain normal in the decades since. Nor would anything be as compelling than the unguarded honesty of people too blind and determined to know better.

Saturday, March 2, 2019


Criterion’s recent boxed set Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema collects the bulk of the Swedish director’s films in one place, but rather than just present them in chronological order, the producers of the box decided to curate the movies as if this were a festival, inviting viewers to explore the maestro’s work according to period and theme, hopefully leading them to connections they might not have seen had they watched Bergman's oeuvre more haphazardly (a mission not entirely dissimilar to the stated goal of this blog).

I’m going to attempt to respect that in how I watch the movies. We will see how it goes. I don’t want to front, I can tell you now i won’t always be re-watching ones I’ve already seen, and when I do, I doubt I will review them again. It’s a time issue, really, not a lack of desire. But we will see how the spirit of cinema moves me.

I’ve already reviewed the set’s first two offerings, which you can read here:

* Smiles of a Summer Night

In the festival, Crisis, Bergman’s first film, is paired with his third, 1947’s A Ship to India. Both are melodramas with genre trappings, the result of a young filmmaker’s apprenticeship in Sweden’s version of the studio system. Humble beginnings, to be sure, and not dissimilar to the Beatles starting out as a covers band, but as the essay accompanying these movies asserts, it’s good to see that all great artists have to start somewhere.

A Ship to India has much in common with a Hollywood back-lot romance. It hinges on a father/son rivalry over a vaudeville singer. “That damn Captain Blom” (Holgen Löwenadler, Lacombe, Lucien), as his crew refers to him, is a rough personality. He lives with his wife, Alice (Anna Lindahl), and son, Johannes (Birger Malmsten, Thirst [review]), on their salvage boat, working intermittently as the mood strikes him. As his business sits idle, Blom lives it up in town, brawling and drinking, and wooing the chanteuse Sally (Gertrud Fridh, The Magician [review]). When the Captain finds out he’ll be going blind within the year, he decides to cash in his chips. One last job, and then he’ll leave the family and take Sally to India.

This surge of selfishness collides with Johannes’ own plans to get out. He wants to join another ship and make his way in the world--something his father finds laughable. Johannes was born with a small hump on his back, and he is seen as a cripple. His father has treated him as lesser-than all his life. Mother encourages what she can, as do the other men, but it’s not until Sally comes along that Johannes starts to get a little courage.

Narratively, A Ship to India is all over the place. The story takes a while to find its central track, instead sideswiping us with bizarre character outbursts like Johannes getting drunk and nearly raping Sally. Then again, perhaps the young Bergman sees a sort of anarchy in the volatile emotions of the men in the Blom family, since the Captain is prone to violent lashings out, as well. It’s these character complications that make A Ship to India interesting. Captain Blom is a completely sympathetic villain, and Johannes is far from a purely noble hero.  You hear each man express his fears and desires, only for them to turn around and do something awful. I’m surprised Bergman didn’t use Holgen Löwenadler more. He has a presence not unlike Max von Sydow. His moodiness plays across his face like oil slithering through water.

There are traces of later Bergman in this fledgling work. The family dynamics would come to play time and again, all the way through famous later films like Cries and Whispers. There is also an early hint at his love of theatrical presentations. Whenever we are in the theater with Sally, he prefers to shoot from backstage rather than the front of the house, always more interested in what’s behind the curtain than what is in front of it.

But there is also a clumsiness that could have been taken care of with another script polish. The framing sequence that shows us the family five years later is superfluous, and seems to exist only to give us a semblance of a happy ending. Much of the same could have been achieved by keeping to one timeline. It might have even heightened the drama to have so much happen all at once. There is also a lack of vibrancy to most of the staging. Bergman’s performers regularly come off as subdued, and it’s less like they are holding back as a choice and more like not everyone on set is as yet comfortable with working for the camera.

Still, A Ship To India would have been a comfortable B-selection paired with a more prestige picture--something kind of funny to say about an Ingmar Bergman release since “prestige” is practically his middle name, but as noted earlier, everyone has to start somewhere.

Saturday, February 23, 2019


Following last week’s viewing of Clouzot’s La verité [review] and the questions it raised regarding how the director chose to use the image and reputation of his lead actress, Brigitte Bardot, it seemed like the right time to back up and take a look at the film that defined Bardot as an international sex symbol: 1956’s ...And God Created Woman.

Dubbed by the Criterion edition’s back cover hype as “a milestone in cinematic naughtiness,” ...And God Created Woman has little cause to be remembered beyond Bardot’s petulant performance and all the excuses the filmmakers find to get her undressed. ...And God Created Woman was the debut effort of writer/director Roger Vadim (Barbarella), who was married to Bardot at the time, and he misses no opportunity in exploiting his famous wife. Or wives. This was Vadim’s m.o., going from here to have both public and cinematic liaisons with Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve.

Truth be told, he needs these women to prop him up. Roger Vadim is not a good film director. He is pedestrian, at best. Most of ...And God Created Woman is shot straight-on, with little movement or composition. Vadim’s single trick is to sometimes use a mirror reflection as an extension of his leering camera eye. He probably would have had a better career as a pornographer, as the only thing he seems to know how to do exceptionally well is pose a naked body. So much so that in La verité Clouzot calls back to the first appearance of the nude Bardot in ...And God Created Woman--lounging on her stomach, derriere in full view--to show her character seducing the man she’d later kill.

Not that a more artful flourish could have done much for ...And God Created Woman’s script. This is standard melodrama, with Curd Jurgens (The Spy Who Loved Me) as a wealthy developer looking to buy a tiny family shipyard to secure all the land he needs to build a casino. The family doesn’t want to sell, however, and Jurgens locks horns with the eldest son (Jean-Louis Trintignant, (Trois Coleurs: Red [review], Amour [review]). Both, of course, are also involved with Bardot, whose Juliette likes flirting with the older man but genuinely cares for the younger. When Trintignant’s Michel proves to be a cad, Juliette marries his younger brother--predictably reigniting the others’ desire to have her.

If you were to make a parody of what a French film is supposed to be, whatever cliché comes to mind is most likely ...And God Created Woman. The gray morality play about a young woman with multiple lovers who is both lauded and punished for her sexuality would be sitcom fodder for years to come. Remember Rochelle, Rochelle? Too bad in reality ...And God Created Woman is more boring than laughable. Then again, this also gives credence to my theory that Clouzot was tearing apart such banal tropes in La verité, giving some agency back to the performer and the image that defined her. Skip ahead two years and just watch that far superior drama. Or, if you must, treat ...And God Created Woman as it seems intended, and just fast forward past the story to the naked bits.

For more Bardot and Vadim, check my review of The Brigitte Bardot Classic Collection.

Monday, February 18, 2019

LA VERITE - #960

1960’s La vérité is a cracking courtroom drama. Directed by Henri Georges-Clouzot (Diabolique [review]) and starring Brigitte Bardot (Contempt [review]), La vérité builds itself around the testimonies in the case of one Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey, Band of Outsiders [review]), a music student and up-and-coming orchestra conductor, now deceased. The timeline bounces from the witness box to flashbacks of the real events and back again, creating two narratives: the trial activity and the interpersonal drama that led to the homicide. These dual tracks put the audience in the position of the ultra-jury, our macro view allowing us to judge all the participants and all sides in a way the film’s characters cannot.

Clouzot’s jam-packed courtroom is a living, breathing entity. There are prosecutors and defense attorneys, reporters and jurors, judges and witnesses. In Clouzot’s view, they are all equally important, and how the mass functions creates a miniature society within the larger whole, a shadow community that will make sense of what happens out in the world. The lawyers on both sides--prosecutor Eparvier (Paul Meurisse, Army of Shadows [review]) and defense attorney Guéri (Charles Vanel, the 1934 Les misérables [review])--have their roles and their relationships. The prosecution is stern, the defense disruptive and irreverent. We clock their machinations, and weigh the impact it has on others, including the victim’s mother.

But above all of them--quite literally, she is housed directly over her defense team--is the accused, Dominque Marceau, played with a remarkable emotional breadth by Bardot. Dominque is not contesting the fact that she killed Tellier, the only question is what drove her. Was this a premeditated slaying or a crime of passion? Though witnesses to their tumultuous, unhealthy love affair only really know what parts they were personally privy to, Clouzot’s camera is not bound by their words. The flashbacks form one linear narrative of a provincial girl who loses herself to the temptations of Paris, attracting the attention of many men, but only giving her full self to one. Yet, as the prosecution paints Dominique out to be a cruel hussy destroying a sensitive artist, we see how Tellier was jealous, possessive, and just as cruel himself.

In this day and age, there has been much debate over “victim shaming,” how women who have been victims of assault have their own lives put on trial, suggesting their own moral standards or life choices brought the attack on themselves. This tactic, as we see time and again, is wrong, excusing the criminal with facts that are irrelevant. It’s clear from La vérité that women have been subject to such double standards for a long time. Sure, Dominque is guilty, but is she less deserving of a defense because she is in touch with her sexuality? Her lawyer makes no bones about it: the answer is no. The compelling thing here, however, is that we also must reject the notion that Tellier deserved or asked to be killed. Life is not so clean-cut as that.

The fact that the woman in question is Brigitte Bardot makes it all the more interesting, since most audience members in 1960 came with their own preconceived notions of who she was. From the get-go, La vérité plays on her image as a sex symbol. With her hair up and wearing a black dress that essentially covers her from the neck on down, her first appearance in court still draws leers from the men in the gallery. Likewise, we are invited to gawk at her body in various scenes throughout La vérité. Is Clouzot merely seducing us alongside Tellier, or are we just as bad in demanding that the actress gives us a peek? After her sexy turn in And God Created Woman moviegoers expected to see more of Bardot than most other actresses, and I am sure studios were more than happy to oblige. One could even question if Clouzot is exposing her naked curves in service to the script...or the box office.

I’d like to think the former, because there is very little, if anything, in La vérité that the director has not considered through to the finest details, from the doodles on the defense lawyer’s legal pad to the posters on everyone’s bedroom walls to the layout of Tellier’s apartment building and how it allows Dominque to commit murder undetected (Panic Room-era David Fincher would nod in approval). As I mentioned, the courtroom is filled with spectators, and Clouzot regularly cuts to a wide shot just to remind us of what kind of circus Dominique is being subjected to. Yet, it’s those smaller details, the close-ups on observers and participants, that bring further life to the trial. There is never time to be bored, there is always something happening.

That also gives more evidence to Clouzot’s implication of the audience through decorative choices. As La vérité reaches its emotional crescendo, and Bardot is given an opportunity to tear into Monique’s breakdown, quieting the whole of the courtroom, I am sure that theatres showing La vérité in 1960 were also silent. The final outcome of the film, one could argue, is not the fault of the girl, but of a hypocritical society that fed on her shame and turned her pain into entertainment.

Fun Quiz: Which is more French, the ending of La vérité or the ending of yesterday’s review, Cold Water? Both rely on a note from a doomed young woman, but is one more romantically existential than the other?

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, February 17, 2019


You do stupid things when you’re young. Destructive things.

When I was 12 or 13, a couple of friends and I used to go to the high-rise apartment building behind where we lived and race through their hallways, like a suburban remake of Band of Outsiders [review], replacing the marbled floors of the Louvre for gaudy 1980s carpeting. Not all three of us on the same hallway, though, but each on a different floor. We’d climb the outside staircase on one side of the building, and pop open the locked doors on the top floor and two below it, each competitor positioned on his respective floor. On GO!, we’d start running and race to the exit onto the stairway on the other side. With each successive race, run over a matter of weeks, we’d increase the level of nuisance. We’d yell and knock on doors, and once, my friend Jimmy grabbed an abandoned bottle full of oil and some other fluids out of a garage, pissed in it, and then trailed it behind him as he ran, leaving a long stain on the carpet. This was probably the beginning of what would get us noticed, leading to the last straw.

Another time we discovered the management had repainted all the guardrails on the staircase and carved things into the gooey, still-drying paint, mostly using our fingers. It was after that incident, after we’d caused some real damage, that they started keeping an eye out for us, and on a subsequent race, men were waiting for us out on the stairs at the finish line side.

We were taken to the management office and told to sit tight, the police were coming. Not being a real priority crime, we were going to have to wait a while. The couple that ran the building started talking to us, curious why we did it. We copped to the racing, but denied everything else. Worse, we started moralizing on our own. “Why would anyone do such a thing?” we pondered. “How terrible!” Meanwhile, we were biting off our nails to get rid of the paint that was still lodged beneath them. By the time Johnny Law finally did show up, we had convinced our victims that we were innocent. The cops scoffed, seeing right through our ruse (we’d even offered to help clean up, an obvious sign of guilt), but with no one to press charges, we were let go.

Why would anyone do such a thing? It was an honest question to ask ourselves, since we had no answer to offer, no motivation. We were just young and bored, we felt misunderstood, and we needed to lash out at something.

These same unknowable impulses drive the kids in Olivier Assayas’ 1994 semi-memoir Cold Water, a teen drama set in 1970s France. Very little understanding is sought, less offered. At one point, when confronted by his girlfriend’s angry mother (Dominique Faysse, Irma Vep), the Assayas stand-in, Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet, in his only film appearance), tells the worried parent that her daughter runs away because she does not pay attention to her. It’s as good an explanation as any, and probably partially true. Yet, it’s also too simple to fully communicate the miasma of hormones and emotion that make adolescence so trying.

The girl in question is Christine, and she’s played by Virginie Ledoyen (The Beach, 8 Women). Christine is caught in a custody dispute between her parents, and if you asked her, she’d prefer to be with neither. After she gets caught shoplifting some records with Gilles, her father decides to send her to a mental hospital. It’s not the first time he’s done it, either. Though Christine plays it cool, again offering no hint of her true feelings, if she ran across those same cops who interrogated my friends and I (they did check under what was left of our nails, by the way), they’d see through her as easily as they saw through us. Christine is a troubled girl; while the solution is too extreme, she probably does need some kind of help.

Meanwhile, Gilles does not appear to have much reason for his teenage ennui. Outside of maybe trying to impress Christine--who at the start of Cold Water is just his friend--not much seems to fuel his delinquency. His parents have split, as well, but his father (László Szabó, Le petit soldat [review]; The Confession) seems like an all right guy, one who has been willing to give his son enough rope. But then...we all know how that cliché finishes, and dear ol’ dad is seeing how some clichés still hold truth. Gilles doesn’t seem to care about anything, not even the girl he is supposed to love; when she is caught and he is not, he just keeps running and never looks back, leaving Christine holding the bag for his theft. In fact, so lacking in purpose is Gilles’ rebellion, we never get any explanation or payoff for one of his most distressing crimes: he buys half-a-dozen sticks of dynamite and leaves them with his younger brother, teaching him how to attach the detonator and fuse. It’s like that saw blade scene in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood [review] in terms of audience panic. And just like in Boyhood, the perceived danger never manifests.

Much of the above occupies the first third of Cold Water, with the rest of the film hinging on an extended party scene in an abandoned house. Fueled by hash and 1970s rock-and-roll, the kids cut loose, trashing the house, and starting a bonfire. To compare to another Richard Linklater film, it’s like the kegger in Dazed & Confused [review], only the nostalgia has been replaced by apocalyptic anxiety. Even the songs on the soundtrack are darker cuts from Roxy Music, Nico, Bob Dylan, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Assayas finds the sinister drive of “Around the Bend” so effective, he re-starts the song midway through, letting that opening riff work its magic twice (and I say that as someone who loathes Creedence). Gilles and Christine are reunited and dance to Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” which isn’t exactly romantic. Rather, it has a push-and-pull, the narrator rejecting that someone has helped him, and even implies hurt. “Well I stepped into an avalanche / It covered up my soul.”

If the kids really did want attention, Assayas gives them plenty. Cold Water was shot by Denis Lenoir, who also lensed Assayas’ Carlos [review] and the Julianne Moore drama Still Alice [review]. His camera is patient, letting the moments unfold rather than forcing them. This gives the teens time to thrash and flail, and to discover their own mistakes. It’s hard to tell if Gilles sees any of his own errors at the end, or if he’s gotten what he wants. He certainly has let the avalanche cover him, and one can argue that avalanche does him a mitzvah by rolling over him and leaving him behind--itself racing from one stairwell to the next, across the floor of the Louvre, on to whatever finish line its heading for.