Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 15, 2006 8:33 pm 
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COLD SHOWERS/DOUCHES FROIDES

Mikael (Johan Libéreau) is the seventeen-year-old captain of a high school judo team who, as the film opens, is encouraged to befriend another team member, Clément (Pierre Perrier), whose wealthy father is the team’s sponsor. Once they start working together on the mats, they and Mikael’s now ripe childhood sweetheart Vanessa (Salomé Stévenin), with whom he’s already having sex, become a triangle.

Maybe it’s generalized attraction or maybe it’s envy that allows Mikael to share Vanessa with Clément in a secret orgy-à-trois right on the gym mat, we don’t know. What is pretty clear is that Clément’s family is rich and happy and Mikael’s isn’t particularly either. Mikael’s dad (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) is a boozer whose drunk driving loses him his cab driver job, his angry mom (Florence Thévenin) does janitorial work at his school, and they live in a “banlieu” ghetto flat where mom has to cut off the electricity for two weeks because they can’t pay the bill.

The “bac” high school general final exams are coming up and so is an important match for which Mikael must lose eight kilos in six weeks to qualify for a lower weight class. Mikael may outpace Clément in judo, but Clément has every other advantage, even to a better understanding of the strategy of the sport. Mikael feels dispossessed by comparison and this feeling is heightened when Vanessa and Clément again have sex – this time without him, because he flees from a hotel room he’s gone to with them: his class and his sex have endowed him with simpler notions of sexual roles. Only Vanessa of the three feels truly free to explore.

Cold Showers is Antony Cordier’s first full-length film. It was well received in France, showcased in the new directors section at Cannes, and has US distribution. The physical frankness of the film may offend puritanical American sensibilities. In the Rendez-Vous Q & A Cordier said he's a fan of Larry Clark, and showed Clark’s Ken Park to his young principals before shooting because he knew they would like it, and it would serve as a test: would they be able to go this far in their interpretations? Well, Ken Park has been shown in France, but remains barred from public screenings in the US. Douches froides is milder than Ken Park, but its nudity and sexuality are still quite bold, including the sexual “democracy” of showing male bodies as freely as female, indeed more so, since the camera pursues the judo team into the showers to follow their horseplay and shows Clément and Mikael frontally nude after their sex marathon with Vanessa.

Vanessa thinks sex with both boys is the best. Mikael decides it was wrong and comes to regard this experimentation, whatever his motive for participating in it, as having been a mistake. After the hotel incident, from which he flees, he rejects Vanessa, who for her part never forgot that Mikael was the one she cares about.

Douches froides isn’t meant to be prurient, just open. Cordier wants to show the physicality of athletes and adolescent sexuality and also to confront how tragic and extreme adolescent life can be. Mikael is chosen as the film’s main character not to represent the dysfunctions of youth but its normal problems, and the fact that he faces specific class issues which he cannot transcend simply by being high-functioning. (The filmmaker studied editing at a prestigious French arts school, but grew up in a provincial working class family.) The hero’s new friend Clément is a golden boy because he comes from wealth and privilege. Both have parents who seem more adolescent than they do. It’s the youths here who are facing some of life’s most serious issues head-on, while the parents seem juvenile or evasive.

A weakness of the film is that despite its rich physicality, there isn't much depth of character portrayal. The depiction of Mikael in particular is marked by a certain opacity. Despite his voiceover we rarely see into him, and his goof-up on the bac geography test is so total it makes him look inappropriately like a dimwit. Nor does his relationship with Clément go beyond judo moves and a party at the rich Steiners’ house where his dad disgraces himself. A plus is that the details of judo – a major sport in France – are very authentic. Otherwise, Cordier has chosen to classicize and generalize his milieu and his language. The location is made deliberately unspecific and the French is correct and without contemporary slang – two ways in which Douches froides differs from Kechicne’s recent prize-winning L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance), which it resembles in taking youth seriously and attempting to show their relationship issues in depth.

(Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center March 2006, Douches froides opened in Paris June 22, 2005. Picture This, a US company that focuses on gay and coming-of-age films, has bought the US rights.)

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