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.

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