Thursday, June 2, 2011
The key sequence of Olivier Assayas' Cold Water is a lengthy party thrown by a large group of teenagers at an abandoned house (a scene that would recur in different form in Assayas' later Summer Hours). Assayas' camera winds through the party, democratically encompassing all of the action in long tracking shots that show the teens dancing, smoking drugs after meticulously arranging the materials to fill a pipe, setting a massive bonfire in front of the house and dancing in front of it. As the soundtrack collages together Janice Joplin, Alice Cooper, Creedence, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Nico — appropriate to the setting of 1970s Parisian suburbs — Assyas' camera weaves around, capturing seemingly off-the-cuff compositions in which no one ever stands still, in which everyone is perpetually in motion. Outside, he frames the teens dancing to Creedence in front of the bonfire, flailing their limbs as others pile on more twigs and branches from around the spacious grounds of the country home, and the record periodically skips, starting over with the rollicking opening riff of "Up Around the Bend" after a nasty scratching noise. Every so often, the camera captures the leads, the disaffected teens Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), dancing or kissing in the midst of this frantic, beautiful teenage paradise.
Only Assayas could make this anarchic scene so beautiful, so graceful. He obviously appreciates the lyricism and poetry in this teenage wasteland, the sense of alienation that's palpable and unavoidable for these kids. The flames, bright and yellow in the background, cast a golden glow on the faces of the partying teens, and their party is equal parts celebratory and destructive. They take apart the house, throwing chairs and pieces of window frames into the flames, shattering windows, and they dance around the flames as though celebrating a pagan ritual. But their faces are mostly smiling; they're free and happy, if only for the immediate now, and the hints of danger and rage that periodically threaten to boil over mostly center around Christine, the disturbed young girl who's desperately acting out as a defense against a father who's uncaring and disciplinarian and a mother who's too busy trying to sort out her own troubled life to do much good for her daughter. Christine is always running away, always in trouble, and anytime her father catches her he simply sends her to a clinic where they drug her and confine her, trying to wear down her rebellious impulses.
Early on, after Christine is caught while shoplifting with Gilles (who, leading a more charmed life than his girlfriend, manages to escape), she faces a police counselor who clearly wants to help her, who looks at her with frustration in response to her insolent stare and refusal to answer his questions seriously. Assayas is always framing Christine in tight closeups that emphasize her young, beautiful face and the utter inscrutability of her expression. She's often seen through some kind of filter, with a blurry windowframe partially obstructing the view of her face, making it difficult to get close to her. When she's sent to the clinic by her father, she sits patiently waiting with her suitcase in her lap, arranging her hair in front of her face, closing herself off from what's around her as though constructing a defense. (Later, when she chops off some of her hair, her new shorter haircut makes her look more open, more vulnerable, as though she's lost some of the shields that had protected her.)
She is a mystery, locked up inside herself, unable to express what she wants or what's bothering her — when asked a question about herself, by well-meaning authority figures like this one, she responds with mischievous pranks or impenetrable silence, simply fixing him with that inexpressive stare. She's unable to articulate what she wants, or she knows it won't do any good. Her experience with authority figures like her parents or the clinic nurses who want only mute obedience has not suggested that anyone's listening to her when she expresses her own opinions and her own desires. She's a totally lost girl.
Gilles, on the other hand, has advantages that Christine does not: he's a middle class boy with a well-off family, and when he gets in trouble, as he inevitably does, his family bails him out and smooths things over. His situation is coming to a head as well — his parents, divorced like Christine's but without the same sense of instability, have decided to send him to boarding school — but his home life is not nearly as dire as Christine's. His father, at least, tries to understand him, to communicate with his son, and when Gilles is upset at the threat of boarding school his father comforts him. It's obvious that while Gilles' acting out could be merely a phase of teenage rebellion, the destabilization of Christine's life is much more enduring.
There's a gap between them, the gap of class, exacerbated by Christine's mother (Dominique Faysse), who has an Arab boyfriend named Mourad (Smaïl Mekki), which Christine knows very well is viewed as an additional mark against her by the custody courts. But Christine's mother and Mourad are the ones who actually care about the girl, who want to help her even though they're unable to; her father (Jackie Berroyer) barely even listens to her, and the first chance he gets he simply sends her off to a clinic. Assayas films her father at the clinic talking to a doctor, seen through a window, the words they exchange inaudible — it's far more than he ever says to Christine, anyway. Virtually his only audible dialogue in the film is in a scene where he scolds and implicitly insults one of his employees while giving the man an assignment; one can see quite easily the nature of this cold, petty man and what his relationship with his daughter must be like.
The heart of Cold Water is this gap between generations, as well as the gap of class. The film opens with Gilles' Hungarian grandmother telling stories, in Hungarian, about World War II, stories that can't possibly mean anything to the kids she's speaking to. They're barely listening, and when they finish their breakfasts they rush off; they've got their own problems, and the past of their parents and grandparents couldn't seem more remote. Later, Assayas inserts a shot of the grandmother silhouetted in the dark, quietly praying under her breath, ending with a hushed "amen" — it could be a prayer for her lost grandchildren, for the aimless younger generation she doesn't understand, for her own burdens that they could never understand. It's a sign that, though this is a film that is totally on the side of the kids, a film that intimately understands teenage suffering, Assayas is also sympathetic to older value systems, including a spirituality that's as foreign to Christine and Gilles' generation as World War II stories.
The option of prayer isn't available to Christine and Gilles. With no parents, no stable value system, no idea what they want or what's expected of them, they're wandering aimlessly through the fog, sometimes literally as in a haunting sequence in which Gilles sneaks out of his house into a foggy evening, walking through a multicolored autumn forest and then riding his bike into a gray cloud that soon swallows him, erasing him in the dense smoke curling around him. This image of erasure and nothingness is echoed in the film's unforgettable final image, a blank piece of paper that reflects the inability of these teens to communicate, to make themselves heard. They're not even sure what they could say, what they could write, how they could capture what they're feeling and thinking in mere words. The film's title refers to that final scene, set by the side of a cold river in the middle of winter; the world is cold, and these teens huddle together to keep warm, but even with each other they can't quite communicate. They don't want to be alone, that's all they know — anything else is mysterious, inexpressible, and a blank page might be the only thing they leave behind in the world.