Saturday, 3 April 2021

Visconti: Rocco and His Brothers

Luchino Visconti: Rocco and His Brothers
At once lyrical and brutal, this family saga is fatalist film noir expressed through a purity of vision; like the saintly Rocco (Alain Delon) himself, it takes a lot of violence to daunt Visconti’s love. Rocco is a character like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin, or Robert Bresson’s Balthazar. He is the anomaly among the five sons of a poor but canny widow (Katina Paxinou) who brings her family from the south to Milan, where they “arrive like an earthquake,” unprepared for the strains of urban living. The film develops in five episodes, one devoted to each brother, but the structure is as complex as their lives are intertwined.

– Judy Bloch

When Rocco and His Brothers came out, in 1960, a lot of people criticised it for what they perceived as emotional excess. It is operatic, as were all of Visconti’s films, but the remarks about excess made no sense to me. Rocco is Italian culture. I grew up in Italian-American culture, but there wasn’t much of a difference. For us – that is, me and my family and my friends – the physical and emotional expressiveness of the characters in the film, Katina Paxinou’s character in particular, seemed like an accurate and only slightly heightened reflection of the life we knew. We all saw that kind of ‘excess’ on a regular basis.

Rocco is one of the most sumptuous black-and-white pictures I’ve ever seen. The images, shot by the great Giuseppe Rotunno, are pearly, elegant and lustrous – it’s like a simultaneous continuation and development of neorealism. 

– Martin Scorsese

The following extract is an interview with Luchini Visconto in which the great Italian director discusses Rocco and his Brothers.

B.C.: Could you say something about neorealism and the Italian cinema?

L.V.: The big mistake of neorealism, to my way of thinking, was its unrelenting and sometimes dour concentration on social reality. What neorealism needed, and got in a film like De Sica’s Miracle in Milan [1951] and even Pietro Germi’s The Road to Hope [1950], was a “dangerous” mixture of reality and romanticism....

B.C.: Let’s move to the subject of Rocco and His Brothers, a film that has more in common with Bellissima than one might think: its “improvement” on neorealism through a “dangerous” mixture of reality and romanticism, as well as the fact that Rocco itself is star-centered: in Alain Delon. Why did you use Delon in the role of Rocco?

L.V.: Because Alain Delon is Rocco. If I had been obliged to use another actor, I would not have made the film. I wrote the role for him, and Rocco is the main character in the story. After all, the title of the picture is “Rocco and His Brothers.”

B.C.: What exactly is Rocco’s role?

L.V.: I really don’t want to recount the plot of my own film. Nonetheless, just for you I will do so. A mother and her five sons live in the Lucania region of southern Italy, but, in order to find work, they all eventually move north to Milan. Rocco is the first one seized by a desire to escape to the north. He wants to leave, so he just runs away from home, and, inspired by his example, the other brothers quickly follow suit. Though she would rather stay at home in the south, their widowed mother doesn’t want to be separated from her sons, so she too goes north along with her boys.

B.C.: It’s Rocco, then, who serves as a role model for his brothers?

L.V.: It’s more or less fated to be this way, but that is not immediately evident, nor is such a familial “fate” preconceived on Rocco’s part. In Milan, the family settles in a slum. At first everyone looks for work, but no one finds it. Very quickly, the situation there deteriorates and the domestic atmosphere becomes polluted.

B.C.: Even for Rocco?

L.V.: Yes and no. Rocco is pure, you see, the only one who can successfully resist this degrading environment and preserve his integrity. He is also the person who suffers the most, for he is conscious of the familial tragedy, of the irresponsibility of certain of his brothers in the face of the vicissitudes of life that are destroying them. Rocco’s drama is therefore double because, in addition to his own suffering, he takes upon himself the misery of every other member of his family.

B.C.: What are the stages of this domestic tragedy, the events that trigger it?

L.V.: Well, the situation is tragic at the very start. The events that follow are the natural consequence of the social situation in which this family finds itself. That is what I was always at pains to show. And, at the same time, I must insist on the communication gap between Italians of the north and those of the south. We also have our racists, you know, and they are not only of the linguistic kind.
Discouraged because they can’t find work—disheartened is perhaps a better word—three of the brothers end up by becoming boxers. But, above all else, please do not believe that I was out to make a boxing film. This is merely one element in the picture, almost an exterior one or an accessory; simultaneously, boxing is of course intended to be a symbol of physical violence in the face of the figurative violence that Rocco’s family encounters.

Confronted by the difficulties of life in the big city, the brothers fall from grace one after the other. The one who falls first, Simone, is Rocco’s favorite. (For this role I engaged the actor Renato Salvatori.) Simone arrived in Milan almost in rags, but soon he was outfitting himself in silk shirts; and the audience well understood the source of his newfound income without explicitly being shown that he had become a gigolo. In the end, this character plays a very important part in the drama. For what happens to Simone makes clear that the reasons for, or causes of, a family’s survival—or self-destruction—are not the unique location in which it finds itself, as you might expect. Basically, this family, had it remained united, in Milan or anywhere else, would have had a chance to survive intact. Staying together would have been its best strategy for success, if you will.

Another element apart from unemployment divides the family, however, and pits two of the brothers (the others are too young) against one another. In the same ghetto as theirs lives a call girl named Nadia. She is also poor by birth, but her job permits her to live better than those around her. Every day, she lures young men into her bed, and for them she represents luxury of a kind, even mystery. Only Rocco remains insensitive in the beginning to the charms of this urban princess. But such precise delineation or differentiation is unnecessary here, since all these characters are part of the same reality. I don’t need to assign it any poetic quality, for poetry emanates naturally from this environment—from the clash between fish out of water, as it were (Rocco and his displaced family), and the highly toxic water in which they now find themselves (the city of Milan).

Still, in her mysterious way, Nadia herself is a character apart from this environment, and one who intervenes directly—almost constantly—in the tragedy, precipitating its events. This is because she falls in love with Rocco, the family’s only hope for salvation. Nadia and Rocco’s rapport, which forms gradually, is difficult to fathom. There are so many “shades” to their relationship that I simply could not explain them all in mere words. You have to see the film. But the result of Rocco and Nadia’s liaison is obvious: it arouses the jealousy of others. And Rocco suffers as a result, because saving his family is more important to him than Nadia’s love.

It is the “fallen” Simone who is the first to fall passionately in love with Nadia, but she scorns him. Naturally, he is jealous of Rocco, who for his part feels guilty, yes guilty, at being loved by a woman whom he himself does not really love, and whose love, he knows, could only placate and even change for the better his favorite brother, Simone. But Rocco also wants Nadia, and this feeling at times shames him. Already trapped in a dizzying downward spiral where his material life is concerned, he now finds himself hounded by moral dilemmas to which he cannot find a solution. And because no material hardship can destroy him, it is his reason that begins to waver. Up to a certain point, though, Rocco is able to remain whole, spiritually as well as physically.

Already harassed and even harmed by a kind of social fatality, however, Rocco is remorselessly reduced to a slow death, to a more or less long decay. And it is Simone himself who will be the clumsy instrument of his demise: driven in the end by extreme jealousy (Nadia has ridiculed him at the same time as she has clearly stated her preference for Rocco), he loses his head and murders this girl who has sown discord among brothers. After Nadia’s death, Rocco finally becomes bereft of all reason, his “escape” to Milan having removed forever the possibility for him of a normal and healthy life. His mother, for her part, subsequently returns to southern Italy with the youngest of her sons.

B.C.: Is Nadia really the cause of Rocco’s folly-become-madness?

L.V.: To the extent that one can assign causes to madness, yes. These characters are linked: Nadia loves Rocco, who can no longer stand the sight of Simone, who is otherwise his favorite brother and the lover of Nadia. The lines of this story are simple yet unerring, and the very setting of “cold,” utilitarian Milan lends itself to such a narrative. I had no intention, however, of treating this film as a melodrama; for me, it is a realistic tragedy.

An Interview with Luchino Visconti. After Neo-Realism.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

The Coen Brothers: Westerns and Greek Tragedies

No Country For Old Men (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
No Country for Old Men is a pitch-perfect thriller that delivers the pleasurable fear and suspense expected of the genre even as it sends its conventions to the shredder. It is masterfully designed and shot, with brilliant sound editing and perhaps the subtlest score in film history, by Carter Burwell; a study could be written just of its use of wind noises. The nightmare quality of the story and the bone-dry humour of the dialogue seem oddly complementary: somehow the Coens linger at the gallows cracking jokes without losing sympathy for the dead. "These boys appear to be managerial," a deputy sheriff notes of some well-dressed corpses at the scene of the massacre.

Set in 1980, No Country for Old Men returns to the territory of the Coens’ debut Blood Simple (1983), the windy desolation of the Lone Star state externalising the mindset of a country that's "hard on people" – especially those who go against the tenets of Reaganite self-sufficiency without thinking things through. If Blood Simple’s dumber-'n'-hell Ray (John Getz) enmeshes himself in a net of deceit and homicide when he decides to clear up a murder scene for which he mistakenly believes his lover is responsible, Moss too puts his head on the block through an ill-considered act of altruism. "Down here," Blood Simple’s opening voiceover points out, "you're on your own." Yet this is not always the case: despite the Coens' reputation as incorrigible cynics, they have offered a number of studies in redemptive love and friendship, and No Country is no exception. But such relationships must be worked at and often yield vulnerability as well as support.

The Coens have always quoted and pastiched other films and books but this is their first direct adaptation. It's easy to see what drew them to Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel, a baroque cash-in-a-bag period piece with a literary-pulp heritage stretching back to Faulkner and the bleak dime-store tragedies of James M. Cain. McCarthy's story was ideally suited to the subversion of genre that characterises the Coen project and the new film is extraordinarily faithful to its source, distilling its morbid humour and meditations on the unfathomability of evil into a concise nightmare of impending doom and a relentless chase by the demons unleashed by bloodstained money.

– Ben Walters

In the following extract Richard Gilmore discusses the Coen Brothers western No Country for Old Men, and its relation to Greek tragedy.

The stories that the Coen brothers are interested in telling all seem to be very American stories. Their approach of choice is the genre of film. Their favorite film genre is very American, a genre the French call film noir, but No Country for Old Men is of another classic American genre, the western. Genre is an interesting way to try to say something about something because, as Jacques Derrida has made explicit, the “law of the law of genre” is that every new member of a genre set will deviate from and violate the apparent established principles of that genre. This is how Derrida describes the “law of the law of genre”: “It is precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity, a parasitical economy. In the code of set theories, if I may use it at least figuratively, I would speak of a sort of participation without belonging—a taking part in without being part of, without having membership in a set.” This description of each new member of a genre set sounds to me a lot like what it means to be a (new) member of the set of Americans. Just as each new Coen film that has genre elements adds to and transforms the genre it participates in, so too, each new American adds to and transforms what it means to be an American.

No Country for Old Men, then, is and is not a classic western. It takes place in the West and its main protagonists are what you might call westerners. On the other hand, the plot revolves around a drug deal that has gone bad; it involves four-wheel-drive vehicles, semiautomatic weapons, and executives in high-rise buildings, none of which would seem to belong in a western. There is a beautiful moment when Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and his sidekick, Deputy Wendell, are riding along, following a trail, and Deputy Wendell remarks on the tracks they are following in a way that recalls for me a moment in John Ford’s great classic (and revisionist) western, The Searchers (1956), when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) are following some tracks that will be similarly fateful for everyone involved. It is an interesting connection (I won’t claim it is a reference) because in The Searchers, Ethan says, “We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth”—and they do. They find ’em, sure enough; but in an odd, somewhat inexplicable twist, there is no final confrontation between Ethan and Scar (Henry Brandon), the hated Comanche chief he has been seeking for seven years. Instead, it is Martin who kills Scar, and he appears to have done it while Scar was asleep in his tepee. Sheriff Bell is pretty dogged for a while, but he will give up the search altogether before he finds his adversary, Anton Chigurh.

Anton Chigurh might as well be Melville’s Moby Dick for all of the human compassion, or even human motivation, that can be found in him. It makes as little sense to speak of him as evil as it does to say that raw nature, a blizzard or a flood, is evil. He has principles, the equivalent in a man to the laws of nature. Given his principles, he does not act irrationally or from passion; he is more of an inexorable force. He is not a rampaging killer on the loose; he has been summoned by a human will, a human desire, to achieve a desired end. He appears only because he was summoned. The recognizable and clear evil lies with the one (or those, since there may be others involved; the film is not explicit on this point) who summoned him. He was summoned because of greed, lust for power, an indifference to the suffering of others, and personal gratification. He who summoned him will learn, too late, that, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he has summoned a power that he cannot control, that it was pure hubris to think that he could control it.

That evil man is of little interest to either Cormac McCarthy, the author of the novel, No Country for Old Men, or to Joel and Ethan Coen, the makers of the movie. What is of interest to McCarthy and the Coens is rather what happens when a good, but flawed, man encounters this force of nature in human guise. In this sense, No Country for Old Men recapitulates the patterns of ancient Greek tragedy. As in ancient Greek tragedy, a good but flawed man will become enmeshed in events that will prove to be his ruin. It will be what is good in him as much as what is flawed that will engage him in these events, and his ruin will be complete. Oedipus is a kind of paradigm of the way the ancient tragedies begin and end. It is because Oedipus is so smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate that he ascends to the throne of Thebes and rules as a good and noble king. It is also because Oedipus is so smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate that he is able to complete the mysterious task sent him by the Oracle of Delphi and to find the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, King Laius.

Unfortunately, as it will turn out, it is Oedipus himself who killed the previous king, as predicted by the same Oracle of Delphi long ago. He has also married his mother and fathered his children/siblings. As a consequence, Oedipus’s wife/mother commits suicide, he blinds and exiles himself, his incest-produced children will fight and be responsible for each others’ deaths. Llewelyn Moss is similarly smart, self-confident, competent, and passionate. His intelligence and competence lead him to the “last man standing” (as Moss puts it to the man he finds dying in a truck, saying, “there must’ve been one”) and to the money. His compassion compels him to return to the site of the drug deal gone bad to bring water to the dying man who asked for it. It is not at all clear whether or not Chigurh or the Mexicans would have ever picked up the transponder signals if he had not gone back, but it is certainly clear that once they have found Moss and his truck at the scene, they will be on his trail wherever he goes. A fate similar to Oedipus’s disastrous ruin awaits Llewelyn Moss: both he and his young wife will be brutally murdered; all that he has will be lost.

Power, Hubris, and the Fatal Flaw

Anton Chigurh is a monster, in the sense that Emerson uses the word in his essay “The American Scholar,” that is, in association with “monitory” and “admonition,” drawing on its Latin derivation meaning a warning or an omen.The ancient Greek tragedies were meant to serve that same function, that is, warning about especially human temptations that would lead to disaster. Tragedy was considered a source of wisdom as well as of entertainment, and the primary wisdom that the ancient Greek tragedies taught was also written on the wall at the famous and perhaps most holy of Greek temples, the Oracle of Delphi: “Avoid hubris.” Hubris is a difficult word to recover from the Greek, but it means something like arrogant ignorance, thinking that you are better or more powerful than you really are. The Greek gods hated hubris, and one of their primary occupations as gods was punishing humans for their hubris.

Hubris was such a problem for the Greeks not because they valued timidity or even humility but because they loved power, and they loved powerful, proud people. As Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, “The man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them.” The Greek ideal was to manifest all of your true power, and to be very powerful, without overstepping your own limits, without presuming to have more power than you really have. This is a very difficult ideal to achieve because one does not know what one is capable of until one tries to do things beyond what one has done before. And yet, the Greeks (Aristotle, for one) assumed that one could know what one is capable of and thereby avoid the calamities of hubris. The above quotation from Aristotle concludes, “for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish or silly.” This Greek ideal, this wisdom, is, too, exhorted upon the wall at Delphi: “Know thyself.” Llewelyn Moss is a man of considerable resources, but his powers have been lying more or less dormant. He has innate powers of intelligence and determination as well as some acquired abilities learned while serving in Vietnam. Virtually all of these powers are banked, the way one banks a fire, because there is no way to exercise them in his day-to-day life. He has a good job as a welder that does not require all of either his intelligence or determination. He has a lovely young wife and a comfortable trailer home but no obvious way of improving his situation beyond this level of comfort. In many ways he seems to be happy and successful, but it is a difficult thing to have powers that you have no opportunities to use. Doing pretty well in America has never been the happiest of options if there is some chance that you could be doing better. Of course, that possibility of doing better becomes real for Llewelyn when he comes upon the briefcase full of cash. He barely seems to hesitate before he decides to go for it.

A key element of Greek tragedy is the idea of the protagonist’s hamartia, the fatal flaw. Hamartia is a term derived from archery and literally means “off the mark,” signifying that one’s aim has been slightly off. The protagonist of a classic Greek tragedy must be essentially a good person, a person whose intentions are good but who does not really or fully know himself or herself, and this lack of self-knowledge is mixed with a bit of hubris, which puts off one’s aim. This is quite literally suggested of Llewelyn at the beginning of the movie when he is hunting for antelope and ends up shooting one in the hindquarters. In a sense, the entire movie is prefigured in this scene. It is a scene that shows Llewelyn to be highly competent, an expert at hunting: the way he uses his boot for a barrel rest, the way he adjusts the sight for the distance of the shot, his patience in taking the shot, his picking up his shell after he takes the shot are all signs of his expertise. All are signs of his knowledge, his ability, his power, but the scene also shows his ultimate hubris, literally and figuratively. Instead of killing the antelope, he only wounds it, the worst possible outcome for a responsible hunter. He is clearly frustrated and annoyed with himself, and he heads out after the wounded antelope to try to finish what he has started.

It is a long shot that he thinks he can make. It is not a shot that he will make, but he is just good enough to actually hit the antelope at the distance of almost a mile. All of the elements of the movie are here, Llewelyn’s talents as well as his misjudgments, as well as certain implacable facts of nature; distance, heat, the movement of the antelope are the facts of nature that will undo his best intentions. His aim is good but not quite good enough, and the worst possible consequences eventuate because he was willing to try the difficult shot. His experience is a Greek tragedy in miniature.

– No Country for Old Men. The Coens’ Tragic Western by Richard Gilmore in The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers. Edited by Mark T. Conard.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Olivier Assayas on the Making of Cold Water

Cold Water (Directed by Oliver Assayas)
‘A spirit of rebellion has always run through the work of French writer-director Olivier Assayas, but it is perhaps most acutely felt in his masterpiece Cold Water. After growing up in the political tumult of France in the sixties and seventies, Assayas followed a path similar to the one traveled by several titans of the French New Wave, first working as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, then moving on to film projects, including collaborations with André Téchiné and his own feature directorial debut, the 1986 Disorder. In 1994, he made his artistic breakthrough with Cold Water, a portrait of the unruliness of youth that draws inspiration from his own life. The film originated as a commissioned piece for All the Boys and Girls of Their Age (Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge), a French television series focused on adolescence that also included work by Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman. Aside from the subject matter, the rules of the game were that each episode contain a party scene using rock music and be shot on Super 16 mm within an eighteen to twenty-four-day time span. Assayas’s response to the challenge was a formally daring, poignant drama about a pair of rebellious young lovers, Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen), in the early 1970s. The film reaches its high point in a thirty-minute-long party scene at an abandoned country mansion, set to a string of tunes that evoke the era.’

– Hilary Weston

Though it garnered acclaim when it played in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, Cold Water has long been difficult to see, having never received theatrical distribution in the U.S. In anticipation of the film’s opening at New York’s IFC Center, Hillary Weston spoke with Assayas about its autobiographical origins and the impact it has had on the rest of his career.

Q: Can you tell me about Tous les garçons et les filles and how you became involved with the series?

OA: Chantal Poupaud initiated it, and I’d known her because she was doing a lot of PR for indie movies. She approached me pretty early on with this idea of having a few filmmakers make movies about their teenage years, using the music they had listened to at that time. Because I had been making movies that had some kind of musical background, some kind of rock-and-roll texture, I was one of the first filmmakers she contacted. I think Jean-Claude Brisseau and Benoît Jacquot were also involved. But then it did not happen, and time went by.

Once in a while I’d get a message from Chantal asking, “Are you still in?” It must have been in the works for a couple years, and finally she called to tell me she had found a producer. He happened to be Georges Benayoun, from IMA Films, and they had convinced ARTE, the French-German cultural channel, to finance it. The idea was to do a fifty-minute TV movie on a very small budget. Maybe if it had happened earlier, I would not have been onboard because I would have been very busy with other projects. I’d just made a movie called A New Life, which was a total disaster. I’m happy with the film, but the shoot was plagued by conflicts with the producer, who disagreed with the approach of my cut. The whole thing was a nightmare, so I thought it was a good time to try something else, something new.

I wanted to make a feature. I didn’t want to make a fifty-minute TV movie; I was not interested in shooting something autobiographical and just having it be something that’s aired on television once. I needed to make something that was a bit more lasting. So I told Chantal and Georges that I was going to make—with whatever small budget they were giving me—a ninety-minute semi-experimental film. And everything fell into place. I started shooting right after the opening of A New Life, and I needed that freedom. The sense of lightness that 16 mm gives you—for me, that was something completely different. I’ve always made very personal films, but this was straightforward autobiography, even if it was fictionalized.

Q: What was it like to work on this kind of project?

OA: The paradox of the project was that it was a commissioned work—and it was the first time I’d done anything that remotely resembled commissioned work—but someone was commissioning me to be very personal. It had a more lasting influence on my work than I could have imagined. It was the start of a new chapter in both my life and my career. The lightness and pleasure of the filmmaking tools, and the lack of pressure because it was so cheap, gave me a sense that I could continue on that path and make movies that were not too dependent on French financing. I wouldn’t have done a movie like Irma Vep had I not had the experience of making Cold Water before it. And the same goes for the documentary I did on Hou Hsiao-hsien, HHH, which I made with Eric Gautier, who followed what we did on Cold Water. I made one more Super 16 movie—Late August, Early September—so it was a whole moment in my work when I really enjoyed using this 16 mm camera. I sum it up as my “Dogme moment.” It was pre-Dogme—it was three years earlier—but it was pretty much the same idea and had a very similar energy.

Q: You use the word “experimental,” which makes me curious about the style of the film and why you approached telling the story in that way.

OA: I had no idea you could make a feature in four weeks. But we shot Cold Water in that amount of time. I thought: okay, I’m going to make a feature that will be a separate project within the shooting of Cold Water, but it would have the same kind of experimental texture of the movies that Philippe Garrel made in the seventies or Andy Warhol made in the sixties. Beyond making a movie about the seventies, I wanted to embed the notion of a kind of film that would have been made in the seventies. The thing that is strange for me about Cold Water is that this movie was shot in the mid-nineties, but when I looked at the film again while doing the restoration, it felt like the seventies. Instead of being a retro re-creation of the seventies, it deals with something that’s at the core of those years. It’s a movie I could have made as a teenager if I was making movies at that point.

Q: How did you go about casting the roles of Christine and Gilles?

OA: Initially, the rule was that I did not want to use anybody who had seen a camera. I wanted to start from scratch. A lot of the prep for the film was spent casting, which went on for months. I didn’t know Virginie Ledoyen at that time, but she was the actress I had the most trouble casting. I was concerned that she was too good-looking for the part. Also, she had had a career as a child actress. But the minute I met her I sensed that she was exceptional, that she was a unique actress. She was not part of the “Dogme” rules of the project, so it took me a while to accept that I was going to use her. But the second I made up my mind I was comfortable with the decision, and when we started shooting, I realized she was absolutely Christine, and she would transcend the part. Cyprien Fouquet was in many ways closer to my initial view [of his character]. He was this sort of Bressonian actor; he was very pure and had an interiority and intensity. I often think back to Cyprien as a perfect representation of the person I was at that time, and I feel very lucky to have found him.

Q: What was your experience like working with the two of them?

OA: I don’t rehearse at all now, but at the time I did some rehearsing. I certainly didn’t do any reading with the actors before the shoot, but we rehearsed on the set. I was surprised how much I was using very long shots, which made the editing very simple because all the material was there. Years later, when I made Something in the Air, which is about teenagers during the same period, I had a hard time making the kids understand what the seventies were about. The politics, the energy, and the relationship to culture and music—I had to explain that. They played it, but I’m not sure they completely understood it. But when I was making Cold Water in the mid-nineties, there was no misunderstanding. They knew exactly what this was about.

Q: Music is such an important part of your work. Did this film change your approach to it?

OA: Cold Water was a turning point. I’ve always had a hard time with scoring movies. It’s something I did on my first and second features, and I was not so happy with the results. I did it on my third feature, Paris Awakens, and though the music was by John Cale and considerably better than the music on my previous films, I was still not happy with the way music connected with emotions and within the images. The movie I made right after that, A New Life, had no music at all. So Cold Water was a way of going back and building a new relationship with music.

What was fascinating about it was that, for the first time, I was using only music that I loved. The way I approached that very long party scene was by structuring it with music, with tracks that would cover the specific emotions and the way they change during the night. Ultimately, the songs ended up becoming one with the narrative—they say something that’s beyond the story. I think that people who have experienced the seventies are connected by that music, so all of a sudden it’s a universal language.

In many ways, the soundtrack to Something in the Air is much closer to the kind of music I loved at that time. I was very much into British underground. But the way I approached Cold Water was a little different. It doesn’t have the music I was actually listening to; it’s the music kids at that time were listening to. Then there were things I was not even aware of, like the first single by Roxy Music, “Virginia Plain.” Within the context of the film I realized that there is something extremely modern in the track, and that it was a harbinger of what would happen with punk rock. I also used songs by Leonard Cohen and Donovan that were from mature albums, not carried by the energy of their early days. These albums had the melancholy texture of artists who were producing beautiful music but were not that much a part of the zeitgeist. There was already something about the late sixties and early seventies that was fading, and those songs were about the fading.

Q: You’ve talked about how your films are all connected in some way. I’m wondering where Cold Water fits into the context of your career.

OA: It’s like a second first film in many ways, but it’s also strangely a prequel to my first film, Disorder. The characters in that film were the closest I’d ever gotten to autobiography, and they are ultimately the characters of Cold Water [as they would be] a few years later.

– Of Their Age: Olivier Assayas on the Making of Cold Water. By Hillary Weston