Shot on hazy, evocative 16 millimeter film, and now playing at the Music Box in a 4k digital restoration that (thankfully) does not harsh its mellow, the early Olivier Assayas drama “Cold Water” never got a formal U.S. distribution, though bootlegs circulated for decades. A film critic turned screenwriter and director, Assayas made his fifth feature-length project in France for a TV anthology series titled “All the Boys and Girls of Their Age.” Along with Chantal Akerman and Claire Denis, he was one of nine commissioned filmmakers tasked with creating a stand-alone drama inspired by his teenaged years, augmented by music that meant something to him at the time.
This explains why “Cold Water” ran into rights and distribution hassles. In Assayas’ case, paying for all those songs by Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Roxy Music proved prohibitively complicated and expensive.
All has been sorted and paid for, at last, for the Janus Films release. The film itself remains at once elusive and vital, a slice of life and time remembered, set outside Paris in 1972. As Assayas himself has pointed out, the passing years have magically transformed a movie made in 1994 into a seeming product of post-1968 cultural turbulence and unresolved matters of the heart. It feels honest, in other words.
Gilles and Christine are young, in love and completely at odds with their families — they could be the outlaw couple of an early ‘70s Top 40 ballad. Christine, played by a fantastically natural Virginie Ledoyen, is burdened with a hardware store-manager father, threatening to send her to an institution. She’s unruly and “crazy” like her mother, in his view, and early in “Cold Water” Christine and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet, the semi-autobiographical Assayas figure) shoplift some LPs. He gets away; she gets arrested.
The adult world in “Cold Water” exists to give the kids something to rebel against, though Assayas refuses to turn any of the characters into easy prey or cardboard antagonists. Some of the writing is clunky; an encounter between Gilles and his prim, uncomprehending father feels like a rough draft. At one point Gilles recites Allen Ginsberg to himself while wheeling his bicycle through a fog-shrouded forest; at another, Christine, confined (for the moment) to an institution, clutches her suitcase of belongings like it’s her last life preserver. Not everything works in “Cold Water,” but there’s a searching quality to its best passages.
Those include an extended, all-night house party sequence taking up nearly the entire second half. Somewhere outside Paris, an abandoned country home becomes the scene of revels, drugs, transformations (we see Christine cutting off most of her hair) and an epic, ecstatic bonfire. Assayas and his cinematographer Denis Lenoir delight in the light and shadow of the long, winding takes. Here the memories become more tactile and intuitive.
There’s word of a commune somewhere in France where Gilles and Christine decide to follow their destiny. A different movie, a different filmmaker, would deal with this last chapter of “Cold Water” differently. This movie, this filmmaker, dramatizes it as an open-ended, tantalizing question: Where to next? And how do we get there, together or by ourselves?
So much in this small but haunting picture points to Assayas films to come: the riddle of an ending in the recent Juliette Binoche/Kristen Stewart drama “Clouds of Sils Maria,” for example, or the coda of “Summer Hours,” where the teenager sneaks off to a house party, just as Gilles and Christine do here. The 4k digital restoration of “Cold Water” clarifies some of the murkier imagery without sharpening the edges in the wrong way. It still feels like a ‘70s artifact, even though it’s a ‘90s artifact. And the rights tangles regarding the highly personal soundtrack were worth the untangling.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"Cold Water" -- 3.5 stars
No MPAA rating (some nudity and language)
Running time: 1:32
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; musicboxtheatre.com