L'Eau Froide Review
L’Eau Froide was Olivier Assayas’ response to a request from producer Chantal Poupaud, who was preparing a series of ten films by ten directors called Tous les Garçons et Filles de Leur Age. A number of important directors were assigned to a make film about their youth at the age of 16 – consequently Jean-Claude Brisseau was lined up to cover the late 50’s, André Téchiné to do the early 60’s, Claire Denis the mid 60’s etc. Assayas’s film is set in the early 70’s, a crucial time for a youth growing up in the immediate years following the Paris student rebellion of May 1968. The film certainly succeeded in ruffling a few feathers, earning an unwarranted “not for under 16s” certificate (equivalent to a UK ‘18’ or US ‘R’) for its depiction of children with behavioural problems - an unusually strict certification for the normally rather liberal French film certification board, where this type of treatment routinely passes with a ‘Tous Publics’ (‘U’ or Suitable for All) certificate.
Gilles and his young schoolfriend Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) attempt to steal some records from a record shop. Christine is caught, and after an unproductive attempt by a put-upon police officer (Jean-Pierre Darrousin) to get her to see the dangers of the direction her life is going in, she is given over into the hands of her father. Unable to cope with the broken family life – her father is separated from her mother who lives with a new boyfriend - Christine is unable to bear living with her father and is send to an institution known as Beau Soleil, which is rumoured to use electroshock treatments on its internees. Gilles, also a child of divorced parents, meanwhile finds himself expelled from school. Running away from Beau Soleil, Christine and Gilles meet up again at a huge party being thrown at an abandoned château and decide to find a way to escape from their parents and the lives they are being forced to lead, but Christine is not convinced that Gilles is strong enough to give her the support and help she needs.
After the lack of success of his previous films Paris S’Eveille (1991) and Une Nouvelle Vie (1993), which had seen the director fall into a schematic way of making films, the proposition to make a film about youth couldn’t have come at a better time for Olivier Assayas. Adopting the use of a Super-16mm camera allowed Assayas to shoot in a more natural, laid-back manner, the film simply flowing along through certain scenes in a way that hadn’t been seen since his debut film Désordre. L’Eau Froid consequently captures that same intensity of the spirit of youth, resembling the earlier film in a number of ways, not least in the key opening sequences where an attempted theft from a music shop sets the direction for the subsequent fracturing of the characters lives.
Music then, just like Désordre becomes the key motivating force behind the characters in the film. L’Eau Froide (Cold Water) is set in 1972, the date set in an early scene by a radio broadcasting Roxy Music’s Virginia Plain. In one short glance between Gilles and his younger brother looking over the radio at each other, the spirit of complicity through a new music that reaches out and connects with the youth of a particular generation is already established. The early seventies were a key period for youth in France, following immediately after the student rebellion of May 1968, and leaving many youths feeling lost and directionless, particularly those, like Assayas and the characters in his film, who lived in less prosperous outlying areas of Paris (a legacy which has contributed to France’s longstanding problem that has exploded recently with trouble in the banlieues).
Assayas captures this disaffection, again as in Désordre, with a perfect combination of music and image, particularly in one stunning wordless sequence at a party at the abandoned château, where the film shows the preparation and smoking of a cannabis pipe, the camera flowing languidly along with the passing of the pipe in an almost unbroken swirl, while the music (from the records Gilles stole from the record shop) plays out in the background - Janis Joplin’s Me & Bobby McGee (“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”), Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Up Around the Bend and Alice Cooper’s School’s Out - seemingly obvious selections, but songs whose lyrics have genuine meaning and speak to the young people of a particular generation. The scene then culminates in a huge bonfire, upon which furnishings from the house are thrown as the kids dance around the fire. This sequence captures everything about youth – not in any explosion of anger directed against authority, but in its desire to be free to be itself, to stretch out, find its own limitations and make its own mistakes – a note the film’s ending unmistakably proposes.
L’Eau Froide is released in France by 2Good. The DVD is available as part of the Collection Olivier Assayas boxset containing three of the director’s early films - Désordre (1986) and Irma Vep (1996) having already been available on DVD since 2003, but are collected in a set with a first-time DVD release of L’Eau Froide (1994). The boxset also includes a superb 48 page booklet, presenting scrapbook information, notes, letters, shooting schedules, photographs and reviews of the three films. None of these DVDs however include English subtitles. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, without any region coding.
Filmed on 16mm, there is quite a bit of grain in the negative and a fair amount of softness, particularly in under-lit locations, but this is entirely in keeping with the nature of the photography and the tone and atmosphere of the seventies that L’Eau Froide seeks to evoke. The quality then is quite superb, showing not a single noticeable flaw in the print or artefact in the digital transfer to DVD. A truly impressive transfer.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and it is also sympathetic to the film’s original soundtrack and dialogue recording – voices clear and audible (when they are not mumbled in the way of teenagers), with detail in the atmospheric sounds of the locations. The musical score, of vital importance in this film, has the full impact required.
No subtitles are provided, neither in English nor even French for hard of hearing. This is a pity as it unnecessarily limits a film that would otherwise have a much larger audience.
There is not quite the large selection of valuable extra features that are present on the 2Good release of Désordre, but effort has gone into getting archive material and a backward perspective on the film. The Essais de Comédiens includes the original screentests for Virginie Ledoyen (2:27), Cyprien Fouquet (1:50), Djamel Bensalah (2:22), Alexandra Yonnet (3:15), Jérôme Simonin (4:10) and Anne-Lise Calvez (2:12), all performing the same scene. In the Interview de Virginie Ledoyen (11:46), the actress recalls the arduous casting process to try to find fresh new talent for the film that lasted 6-7 months. This made it difficult for Ledoyen, who although only 17 had already appeared in a number of films. She talks also about her identification with Christine and gives an analysis of her character, with a few words at the end about her experience of working with Assayas. Catching up with the actor on location in the spectacular surroundings of the Pyrenees, the Interview de Cyprien Fouquet (5:29) talks about his early filmmaking experience on the film, knowing nothing then of Olivier Assayas or cinema and not even fitting the casting profile for Gilles, but obtaining the part in any case. He reflects on a couple of scenes and talks about the improvisation and input he brought to the character. The Film-Annonce (1:44) shows the trailer in 1.66:1 anamorphic and the extras are rounded out with text listings of the Liste des Musiques and Filmographies of Assayas, Ledoyen and Fouquet.
Rather like Assayas’s first film, Désordre in 1986, L’Eau Froide succeeds in surpassing the conventions and clichés of the nominal plot-line about disaffected youth, and through his use of music and a fresh, flowing mise en scène finds a way to get beneath the surface and bring out a sympathetic and clearly autobiographical understanding of the circumstances of his characters and youth in general. An important break-through film in the director’s career, it is unfortunate that English subtitles are not provided with this French DVD release, which is otherwise superb.