"Cold Water" (1994)
Assayas does a lot of things right in "Cold Water," his best film to date. But most cite first and foremost the filmmaker's flawless execution of this picture's extraordinary 20-plus minute centerpiece, a rave held by a group of teens deep in the woods, echoes of which can be seen throughout Assayas's work (most notably the house party in "Summer Hours"). As bodies dance in the dim light of a dilapidated farmhouse, Janis Joplin, Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and others set the mood. In the midst of it all are disaffected youths Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) and Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), lovers brought together through a shared feeling of displacement (neither’s parents want them around, and try to ship them off to a mental institution and boarding school, respectively). What makes this particular portrait of Youth in Revolt so special is that it never vilifies the adult characters. As Reverse Shot's Michael Koresky eloquently put it, "Cold Water" is a reflection of "true emerging awareness at this time of social distress." Assayas recognizes that the aimlessness of youth culture should not be blamed on the parents or their misbehaving children, but is the byproduct of a social crisis that forces the two from each other. When Gilles father announces he's sending his son to boarding school, he adds, "I'm never home, I can't watch you all the time." In this way, "Cold Water" signals a new-found maturity in Assayas's work, as his protagonists grow older and his characterizations sharper in the coming years. [A-]

"Irma Vep" (1997)
Greater writers have tried (and failed) to capture this film’s indescribable magnetism. It's ostensibly about the ‘disorder’ of today’s French arthouse, conducted like a Robert Altman mosaic, with characters flitting between rooms and the camera nimbly tracking them. It's also a movie that considers the value of an art cinema rejected by general audiences (linking it to Assayas's next film, "Late August, Early September") in sometimes didactic ways. It's both intensely cerebral (lots of self-conscious, rambling dialogues, which may be the point), and totally improvisational, as evidenced in its out-of-leftfield finale. "Irma Vep" is a lot of other things, too, including a film-within-a-film, following a petulant auteur (Jean-Pierre Léaud, filling the role of a fictitious Nouvelle Vague stalwart) determined to capture the "quietude" of Louis Feuillade's silent serial "Les vampires." The director (in the film) casts Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung (who plays herself), admiring the "grace" she displays in martial arts movies. Cheung arrives to find a frantic crew, few of whom speak English, and is promptly whisked to a sex shop and fitted for the black latex suit she'll be wearing as the title character (an anagram for "vampire," by the way). This movie is unpredictable—there's at least one scene that we're pretty sure is a dream sequence, involving an almost Lynchian naked cameo from Arsinée Khanjian (who greatly resembles Isabella Rossellini)—but the randomness is thrilling, the substance is the style, and the meaning… well, that's in there too, somewhere. [B+]

"Late August, Early September" (1998)
This film and Assayas's later "Summer Hours" go together like two shoes. In the latter, the passing of a family matriarch forces her children to appraise the estate she leaves behind. Here, the passing of an idiosyncratic author causes his friends to contemplate their lives and their complicated relationships. Both double as meditations on the value of art; in the later film, it is painting and sculpture that is assessed, monetary value weighed against sentimental, while here it's the worth of great literature that can't connect with an audience. Give Assayas credit for being open about not having the answers: a conversation central to the film finds author Adrien (François Cluzet), reacting to his fledgling health, discussing candidly his failure to make sustainable income from publishing his books, while best friend Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), argues that it's his legacy as a great writer that should be more important. Assayas takes neither side, and a later scene — during which young interns sing the praises of Adrien's posthumous novel, admitting they haven't read his other work — only frustrates Gabriel, who insists, "His best books were ahead of him." If 'Late August' doesn't pack the emotional wallop of "Summer Hours" (nor Arnaud Desplechin's relationship drama "My Sex Life…," also featuring Amalric), it's elevated by a stellar cast of French thespians (in addition to Amalric and Cluzet, Jeanne Balibar, Alex Descas, Mia Hansen-Løve, and "Cold Water’s" Virginie Ledoyen), and by an acute understanding of the way we interact as lovers and as friends. [B+]

"Clean" (2006)
Superficially, “Clean” is a movie we’ve seen before, the struggles of a rock star junkie and her desire to stay clean and provide for her son. But of course that would be neglecting the challenges Assayas responded to, showcasing a story with a touching focus on humanity, a meditation on forgiveness that is never neat and tidy, but instead filled with disruptions and tragedy. Maggie Cheung, a former Assayas paramour, delivers a performance of noted difficulty, attempting to find the strength from within and learning to trust herself when the world has given up (she won Cannes' Best Actress prize in 2004). But a growly, unkempt Nick Nolte is a highlight as the compassionate father-in-law determined to help this fractured, unhappy woman find strength. Deceptively straight-forward, “Clean” is a movie about complex emotions and acute heartbreak that feels real every single minute. [A]