Music rights were the bugbear that kept Olivier Assayas debut feature, “Cold Water” from American release, but now that they’re cleared, it’s apparent that different music would have made for a much lesser film. At first blush, this compact, thrilling burst of romantic lyricism is at the very least a minor masterpiece, of a piece with themes, philosophy and formal accomplishment of Assayas’ formidable body of work since 1994. A reformed film critic as well as a keen music aficionado, Assayas’ attention to sensation has seldom been so front-and-center as in this coming-of-age succession of fragments. For Assayas, gesture is action and music is heartbeat, and so it is for his renegade adolescents. There are euphoric instances of pop cutting through it all in “Cold Water,” including an apparition of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain,” and an extended teen-party dance scene that astounds, is frisson upon frisson, gesture after gesture, choreographed movement that is wordless yet synchronized to each breath and rest of each song. Rebellion is in the air, borne on refrain after refrain—Dylan, Donovan, Nico, Joplin, Alice Cooper, Leonard Cohen. (The only comparable dance scene I can think of is in Philippe Garrel’s later “Regular Lovers.”)
Assayas told Pitchfork, “The songs are the screenplay. With their pace, their energy, I structured the whole [party] scene around the songs. I didn’t feel the scene and do the music on top.” Of the 16mm to digital transfer, Assayas told Vanity Fair’s Olivia Aylmer, the long-awaited result is “something that’s much brighter and with a lot more detail than what the original film print had. We have better sound, better image. It’s kind of a new film—but it’s been a long road.” With Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet, László Szabó. 4K digital restoration. Originally made for French television. 95m. (Ray Pride)
“Cold Water” opens Friday, June 8 at the Music Box. The Criterion Blu-ray is released in September.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.