Originally envisioned as a 52-minute chapter of a television anthology series with strict thematic and contextual rules, Olivier Assayas‘ L’eau froide [Cold Water] eventually found itself as the much sought-after 90-minute Cannes debut that cemented the auteur’s style, acclaim, and promise without ever reaching American shores due to lapsed music rights. He would revisit the characters almost twenty years later with Something in the Air‘s more overtly political depiction of his semi-autobiographical youth mired in the turmoil of May ’68, but his earlier work still lingered as a missing link to his oeuvre. Finally restored with the original classic rock tunes of Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Alice Cooper, and more, it’s easy to see why the hype grew so large and why that revision paled in comparison.
This is a much more personal vision of youth against the backdrop of what May ’68 stood for without its politics getting in the way of the characters’ existence within them. That revolution is pushed to the background here to become Assayas’ literal unspoken tension in the air, a state of being that could only be defeated with love. Only Gilles’ (Cyprien Fouquet) feelings for Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) could turn his focus away from a bid towards rebellion and incendiary protest (the purchase of dynamite as much a red herring as portrayal of his fidelity to a cause and therefore the power of love to conquer it) despite his teenage youth. Only her desperation for escape can shake Gilles to act on her smaller yet more important cause.
The film follows them as they traverse the complicated landscape of issues big and small. We watch them act out against parents, upbringing, and rule of law. We see them risk their freedom knowing they’ve lost it before and could find themselves in even direr straits if caught a second time. It becomes an exhilarating exercise of pure adrenaline tempered by the claustrophobic, futilistic depression cultivated in the aftermath. Both of these teens put up a fight with rhetoric that often gets them in more trouble and emotions too impassioned to survive if they become dismissed yet again. They’re being driven from a world that they have forsaken—namely an upper middle class, intellectual upbringing—only to find themselves uncertain of what a future without it will bring.
That uncertainty propels the plot forward. It forces them to make choices kids their age shouldn’t have to make. And the consequences become harsher than they anticipate because the belief that their families don’t care is predicated on a refusal to meet them with a compromise of dialogue. But any seeming lack of parental oversight isn’t to be exploited in such a way that evolves it into something wholly worse: boarding school imprisonment so the lack of time to discipline is readily replaced by external means. The more you act out in defiance of a notion that Mom and Dad don’t care, the more likely they’ll defend themselves with extreme measures to the contrary. A physical prison replaces your psychological one and freedom truly does become an illusion.
They do “bad” things and react to the consequences. Youth becomes diminished until there’s no other recourse than rebellion—not in a sense of the French against the government, but of themselves against a life they didn’t choose. Their actions work towards a destructive party of music, fire, and drugs at an abandoned mansion removed from the insulated domiciles they call home. It’s here that they’re in control to numb the past, enjoy the present, and lay plans for a future of their making. Parents can’t simply pull up in their car and shut the chaos down. They are outsiders to this sanctuary, tethers to a life rejected that cannot be allowed power. Christine’s Mom (Dominique Faysse) is the “enemy,” the girl’s peers a united force of protection.
This isn’t an American teen film, though. It’s not some phase Christine can be jolted awake from. Uncle Buck isn’t driving up to strike fear into the heart of Gilles before showing her the love her parents never could. No, the feelings onscreen are real and they are felt behind the smiles used as deflection. Despite their age, these kids are on a course youth cannot protect them from. They exist at a time of social and political upheaval, rampant nihilism, and a communal sense of depression any pessimist born into the rest will find difficult to combat. So while Christine coaxes Gilles to follow her to an off-the-grid utopia devoid of the commercialization of life itself, we’ve seen too much pain from her to be fooled.
Assayas provides what would be cries for help in films by American contemporaries. They’re exactly that for a fast and loose Gilles because he isn’t completely lost. If he was caught stealing records instead of Christine, he may have turned a new leaf in the ensuing drama. But the same cannot be said about her. We can read the signs from her talk of secret plans to her casual fabrication of rape to the unprovoked cutting of her own hair. By placing her next to Gilles, Assayas infers that they’re of the same mindset and circumstances. It’s only as the film progresses that we realize nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps Christine did cry for help previously, but it happened long ago if so.
What’s presented is therefore a convergence between two characters traversing the same literal landscape in vastly different states of mind. We’re to compare and contrast them as a means of shielding the reality of what’s forthcoming. And Ledoyen sells every second of the journey. It truly is a devastating portrait of hopelessness and the façade built to mask it from the ones you love. What initially feels like the beginning of something new quickly reveals itself as the beginning of an end. Assayas shoots it in close-ups with a kinetic view of rising tempers and warm serenity oscillating over the very fine line separating them. There are no easy answers and no silver lining because no matter how promising things may appear in the moment, despair is unforgiving.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
 Virginie Ledoyen as Christine. Courtesy of Janus Films.
 Cyprien Fouquet as Gilles. Courtesy of Janus Films.
 Cyprien Fouquet as Gilles and Virginie Ledoyen as Christine. Courtesy of Janus Films.