Every generation loves a good revolution—stories of marches, graffiti, posters and picketings that changed the world. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 protests in France: student protests against capitalism, American imperialism, and the general functioning of Charles De Gaulle’s government, that gained momentum when millions of striking workers joined the protests and successfully managed to bring the French economy to a standstill. Nostalgia seekers talk about the exuberance, the exhilaration, and the excitement of it all. Olivier Assayas, who grew up in the 70s, living through the aftermath of May ’68, is not one of them.
In 1994, Assayas made L'eau froide (Cold Water) for the TV series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, wherein every participating filmmaker—a list that included Chantal Akerman and Claire Denis, among others—was asked to make a film about their adolescent years using the music they listened to back then. Fourteen years and a lot of music licensing hassles later, a new restored version of the film finally sees a release in the United States today.
Growing up, before he could listen to any contemporary American music, Assayas would read about it in British newspapers, and try imagining this music he had never heard. When the music finally reached France, there was only one radio station playing that stuff in the 70s. As we see the film’s protagonist Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and his brother toss and turn their radio set and carefully angle the antenna before Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” starts playing, it is clear that accessing American music took a lot of passionate dedication and an arduous tinkering of radio signals.
Cold Water is the story of lovers, Gilles and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), school-going teenagers in 1972 consumed by the typical and contradictory desires of fitting in and yet standing out. Christine comes from a broken family and is extremely unhappy about her father winning custody over her; he insists that she be sent to a mental hospital in Beausoleil. Gilles’ father tries to discipline him but finally decides to send him to boarding school. What underscores both their personalities is a constant restlessness, a constant need to break boundaries, and a complete ineptitude, in the adults around, to contain or control them. When the two visit a record shop and Gilles shoplifts, he manages to escape but Christine is arrested. She manages to trick the police officer into believing her made-up story about being sexually assaulted by a cop; Gilles pays no attention in class and is failing at school. When they steal, they burst out in a giggle. In what is a direct consequence of belonging to the generation immediately succeeding the ‘68 rebels, they share a reckless disdain for authority, but unlike in 1968, there are consequences. Theirs is a generation that has lived on the residue of a revolution—having only heard the glories but personally seeing all its failings.
There is a scene where Gilles’ father pulls out a book and looks at a picture of Caravaggio’s “The Death of the Virgin.” He talks about the man sitting by the Virgin’s feet—clutching at his throat and covering his eyes in grief. “Few images of suffering move me more than this,” he says, and asks Gilles, “What about you?” Gilles doesn’t answer and walks around the living room listlessly. The floor is carpeted and his father is talking about Caravaggio, in school Gilles reads from Rosseau’s Confessions. Standing within the celebrated nexus of all that is holy and celebrated in European culture, Gilles is unhappy and unfulfilled, but his father doesn’t see it. When he runs away from home at the crack of dawn the next day, wheeling his bike through trees and a thick fog, Gilles recites the American poet, Allen Ginsberg, “I come,/ lone man from the void, riding a bus/ hypnotized by red tail lights on the straight space road ahead.” Christine, too, runs away from Beausoleil.
The two lovers meet in a party in an old abandoned mansion. Assayas and his cinematographer, Denis Lenoir, in what would become their signature long and meticulous takes, film this party for almost half of the film’s duration. There is a lot happening here—it’s crowded and dark, made worse by all the smoke. One can barely register what’s going on when the camera patiently follows a smoking pipe as it gets passed around from one mouth to another. The camera shares our confusion when it shows us a succession of half-lit faces, but it insists on being present. In a haze, it sees and shows, and then gets distracted by Christine cutting her own hair with a pair of scissors. With a mass of her unruly hair gone, we can finally clearly see her delicate porcelain face (eerily reminiscent of Assayas’ current muse, Kristen Stewart)—glowing in the half light and sometimes breaking into a smile. There is no nostalgia, no sentimentalizing, but just a sympathetic witnessing that shares their anxieties, ambitions and love. Without obstructing or intruding, it moves. We hear Assayas’ teenage years’ mix tape belt out one song after another—a Joplin, a Dylan, an Alice Cooper, a Cohen, a Creedence Clearwater Revival provide the soundtrack to teenagers working up a pyromaniacal frenzy wherein they build a huge bonfire with chairs and whatever else they can find. There is immense joy in dismantling and burning as they dance around the fire all night. Dawn comes with the dirge like “Janitor of Lunacy” and everything seems cleansed against the dying embers of the fire.
In a typical “us against the world” runaway lovers cliché, Christine and Gilles elope to a commune her friend Chloe has written to Christine about. It lies very far away and has no water or electricity; there are no telephones and writing letters is the only way to keep in touch. It is the perfect idyllic pastoral solution to the ungiving, materialistic realities of their lives. Only, it doesn’t exist. Midway through their trip to the commune, Gilles can’t locate the place on a map. Christine disappears when he is asleep, leaving him a blank sheet of paper—much like the letters to Chloe that she never wrote. It could be her suicide note or a letter or a map, but instead it’s nothing. Sitting by a river, Gilles stares at the paper. The static camera focusing on Gilles’ hands holding the sheet of paper against the flowing river shows us a moment bursting with possibilities: the start of a long lonely road of questions that we’ve all walked wanting to find ourselves.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”