Tough, confrontational and resonantly melancholy, “Cold Water” delivers a sustained emotional pummeling, underscored by a steady whisper of despair. Set in 1972, this compulsive drama of two troubled teenagers is deeply rooted in its time period; as a consequence, those who came of age back then will feel an instant affinity, presenting French writer/director Olivier Assayas with perhaps his best shot yet at widespread arthouse acceptance.
The story centers on Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), two 16-year-olds in a town near Paris. Though it’s immediately clear the pair are a couple, young love is less of an issue here than alienation from their respective dysfunctional families, school and authority in general.
Concerned for her mental stability, Christine’s father (Jackie Berroyer) has been considering admitting her to a clinic. When Gilles steals records from a store and gets away, Christine is hauled in by police, prompting her father to act on his intention. Gilles’ father, meanwhile, is eyeing boarding school as a solution to his son’s escalating disciplinary problems.
After a day in the clinic, Christine’s mood swings from sullen to dangerously depressive. She runs off to attend a party, creating a junction at which the film veers off in a more desolate direction, assuming new textures as it slowly begins to build on its potent momentum.
Before the party, virtually no music is heard on the soundtrack, with Denis Lenoir’s prowling camera the only outside force commenting and effectively crowding in on the incisively drawn characters. Then, having rigorously established his concerns, Assayas blitzes the film for almost its entire remaining half with a flood of impeccably chosen ’70s songs.
The party sequence extends through various phases. The intimacy of Christine and Gilles’ reunion gives way to momentary panic when her parents show up, then to drug-induced nirvana around a bonfire and later to morning-after stillness.
Young leads Ledoyen and Fouquet are remarkably honest and unaffected, not only in shared scenes, but also in a series of tense, unnerving face-offs with adults.
Backup cast members are universally strong, particularly the other kids. Assayas directs his fine script with unerring focus, and tech input shows the customary prowess in all quarters.
Especially shrewd is Lenoir’s extensive use of panicky, hand-held camera, which serves clear purposes in terms of character definition and steers clear of undue pyrotechnics.