Judge Rafael Gamboa beats his Id with his Superego when his Ego isn't looking. Maybe it's because he's too fond of taking a douche froide.
These are the kind of movies that irritate me because I want them to be engaging on an intellectual and emotional level, and instead I find myself waiting for the next sex scene. And then I get gypped again because the next sex scene never happens, for some stupid reason that makes no sense. Ugh. I've lost count of the French indies that have done this to me, time and time again.
Facts of the Case
Cold Showers (or Douches Froides, if you prefer) is a coming of age story about Mickael (Johan Libéreau), a high school student who is captain of the Judo team and who lives with his low-income family. His mother is a janitor/groundskeeper at a gymnasium and his father is a long-time taxi driver and drunkard. Both are struggling to pay for services and amenities for their apartment. He also has a girlfriend named Vanessa (Salomé Stévenin, Mischka) and the two of them befriend Clément (Pierre Perrier, Ciel d'aisle) a rich student who becomes his Judo teammate. A sex triad is formed, and drama ensues.
I hate to be cynical, but it can't be helped. This is one of those films that knows if it wants to get into festivals, it has to do one of two things: 1) be absolutely astounding, or 2) have sex/nude scenes with predictable overtones, plus a healthy mix of family drama. Director Antony Cordier (Beau Comme un Camion) chose door number two. Now, if this film had been of any true mettle (say, the product of Pedro Almodóvar), this situation would have been genuinely involving, edgy, and satisfying, even if the end result were tragic. Instead, this film phoned it in, which created a whole mess of problems.
The film's theme is how people change over time, and the catalyst of change, at least for our intrepid young threesome, is sex. This theme is made abundantly clear after it is openly stated like five freaking times. Not even high school papers repeat their thesis statements so often. Anyway, the film seems like it's trying to tell a realistic story about all this, as it adopts a gritty, simplistic visual style (like 99% of all indies). Unfortunately, narrative realism is chucked out the window after being doused in petroleum and lit with the coruscating flames of Hades.
There is a moment in this film, ladies and gentlemen of the court, where our main character finds himself in a hotel room with his smoking hot naked girlfriend and his rich kid wingman waiting for him in a bathtub. They're waiting for him; it's not like they were hoping he wouldn't show up so they could be by themselves. Mr. Doofus Mickael walks in, sees his girlfriend undressing and walking into the bathroom…and then decides to leave. Allow me to stress this: he leaves his girlfriend—whom he's known for most of his life—with another man! Is he insane!?! This must be the moment of profound personal change, I guess, because after that he refuses to talk to her, but then later he wants to get with her, but then after that blah blah blah. The point is that his actions stop making sense: we know he likes the threesome situation (he even blatantly admits to it later), we know that Clément isn't out to steal Vanessa, and we know Vanessa is in love with Mickael. Why walk away from that and willfully turn a good situation into a bad one? Granted, threesomes usually never work out in the long run, but you don't bail if the ship hasn't started to sink yet.
The reason I single this out is because it comes unexpectedly. When the threesome originally happens, viewers will feel it coming a mile away. You can feel the sexual tension; it is subtle, but it is there, building up. It is only a matter of time until one of them has the guts to go for it. So after something like that, watching something happen on screen that doesn't click with anything you were shown previously is a hideous shock. We should at least get a vague feeling that something is not right in this relationship, and that it's headed for disaster—I mean, we already suspect it because relationship disasters are an indie movie convention, but we should be made to feel the inevitable change coming, not watch it get tacked on just so that critics can stroke their chins and throw the movie into a festival.
Anyway. A subplot involving Mickael's parents not liking each other is reversed simultaneously with the dissolution of the threesome, except we have no idea how or why the sudden reversal of feelings occurred. It just did, and now they are a happy couple about to go on vacation to celebrate their anniversary. And then Mickael tries to get back with Vanessa after he finds out Clément is no longer seeing her, but why would he be talking to him in the first place if he was so jealous of his third-wheel presence? Whatever.
The film is trying to tell me that people change, and that often you don't know how, why, or when. While this is true, people don't change drastically in the blink of an eye. If I walk out of the room, take a leak, and walk back in, I'm pretty sure my girlfriend is going to be pretty darn close to what I remembered her being before I got the overriding urge to urinate. Change occurs gradually; you feel the change before you understand it's happening, and once you realize the change occurred, you can't pinpoint exactly when it started. Its not like one moment people are one way, and then all of a sudden they are the opposite, without any transition at all. That kind of thing only happens with a major traumatic experience, which was completely absent in this film. So what the hell?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Narrative flaws aside, it uses a decent (if predictable) metaphorical language. I consider it a plus that it attempted symbolism, but unfortunately most of it is pretentiously cliché. The Judo sport is a metaphor for sexuality (believe me, you'll see why), and the threesome between a bourgeois, a woman, and a proletarian is a metaphor for class struggles. Gee whiz. I'm beginning to wonder if it's possible for the French to make a film that doesn't worry about sex or class.
However, there is one truly interesting device, which I didn't notice until I listened to the mini-interview with the director, and that was the use of water imagery, a dualistic symbol for serenity and violence. It's so pervasive visually that you don't even realize it's there, and I personally think its use is brilliant. It's this one move on the part of Antony Cordier that elevates this film from it's otherwise derivative material, and it's the only move executed with sublime finesse. It so easily could have devolved into the putrescent squalor that was Memoirs of a Geisha's obnoxious obsession with water, but it instead managed to be magnificently subtle. Go go gadget redeeming quality!
As for the DVD special features, nothing spectacular. The interview is good, but way too short. There are several trailers, a useless photo gallery, and a link to the Picture This! website.
It's a film bogged down by things we've all seen before. It has the same basic sex gimmick and the same typical flaws of modern French filmmaking, but it manages to pull one masterful move before it sinks under its own weight. If you want to watch something of its ilk that's much much better, watch Or instead. It's a recent Israeli film that does everything this one fails to do, and is much more interesting on almost every level. Or, if you want to turn off your brain and watch a hot European threesome…you still should avoid this movie, because this doesn't really deliver in that regard either. Go pick up The Dreamers or something, you naughty, naughty girl/boy.
The court rules that Cold Showers should be kept in IFC Channel's custody to be screened at their discretion, perhaps released to rental status if it behaves nicely.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Picture This!
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