Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) is a troubled teen who lives with his grandmother and younger brother, and is used to her tales of surviving the Second World War, but doesn't feel much connection between those days and these, the early nineteen-seventies. He does love music, but also has a habit of stealing albums from the local store and selling them on to his classmates rather than keeping them for himself, so perhaps he doesn't love music as much as he believes. Who he is certain he loves is Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), a fellow teen and maybe even more troubled than he is, as evinced when she gets caught on one of Gilles' shoplifting excursions instead of him...
Director Olivier Assayas was still fairly early into his career when he made Cold Water, or L'eau Froide as it was known in its original French, but it proved he was gaining traction in his line of work, if not as one of the most famous filmmakers around, then certainly increasingly recognisable to a section of the public who liked his way with melodrama and dips into experimentalism. This was part of a multi-director project that never came to fruition, all supposed to have been coming of age works set when the directors themselves came of age, and you could assuredly discern that focus in how this unfolded as the two young leads became mired in bad behaviour and chronic restlessness.
The thing was, even the bad behaviour was halfhearted on their part, for they could never really commit to anything, not even each other, such was their lack of engagement with the world. The music, a collection of rock tracks of various stripes, was just about the sole connection they had to society at large they could honestly claim was speaking to them, and the impact of punk rock that was just around the corner, which could theoretically bring them back to the world, was both tantalisingly close and too far away to make much difference. Their parents get a lot of the blame for their wayward actions, unable to make any meaningful difference in their offspring's existence.
Thus we see a vicious circle developing, where the parents are just as lost in their confusion and lack of significance as their kids and pass that on to them - not anything they can use, like love or knowledge, simply faltering moves towards a kind of understanding that gets pushed away when the teens would prefer to be misunderstood when it bolsters their sense of worth. Christine's parents are divorced too, she doesn’t want to live with her strict father, but her mother, who has been reduced to Scientology to try and solve her malaise with her self, is plainly in no way capable of handling the tutelage of a tearaway girl. The temptation throughout is to give up, say what's the point? Simply accept that no one will love you or understand you in a way that will help you get through life.
That may have sounded bleak, but this was a harshly unsentimental film, comparable to Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, except Ray genuinely liked his teen characters and Assayas reserves a kind of standoffish fascination with them, presenting them as worthy of study but not entirely committing to them as worthy of our pity. The only way you would sympathise would be if you were as lost as they were, or had been at some point in the past, but there was a lack of sentimentality in the wintry surroundings that forbade any tears from the viewer, it was more encouraging of a shake of the head. The most striking sequence was a lengthy one where the teens and their friends smashed up an abandoned mansion and set a huge bonfire alight in the grounds, it was both incredibly evocative and punishingly loveless, establishing the final act. Incidentally, bearing in mind those chilly conditions, Ledoyen must have been brave to strip off for her final, outdoor scene: how her teeth didn't chatter was a mystery.
[Cold Water is part of The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray, and as extras on the disc you get 2018 interviews with Assayas and his cinematographer, plus a vintage doc.]