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In cinema, despair can, via expression and body language, be communicated in a range of subtle or exaggerated demonstrations, whether it be an anguished look or entire bodily upheaval. In the very last sequence of La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973) – the first and more widely seen of the two full-length fiction films Jean Eustache directed – it manifests in Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) sliding to the floor after proposing to his lover Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), who he has just learned is pregnant. By this point, over three-and-a-half languorous hours into the film’s running time, Alexandre’s carefully curated self-image has been scrubbed out; the consequences of his emotionally unsustainable sexual freedom have calcified, transmitting pain in all directions; and his safety net, for so long propped up by the forbearance of others, is in tatters.

No such embodiment of anguish is present in Mes petites amoureuses (Jean Eustache, 1974), even though it takes a mere 30 minutes for protagonist Daniel (Martin Loeb) to have all he draws comfort from – home, friends, identity, hope for the future – swept away from him and replaced by a spirit-crushing coming of age. The remainder of the film, once he has been unwillingly transplanted from the rural setting of his grandmother’s village to the more built-up, alienating surrounds of Narbonne, is dominated by his face and his voice, each resolutely impassive.1

In the latter locale, Daniel’s hopes of attending high school are soon dashed, being obliged to work instead in a bicycle-repair shop as a junior apprentice; and he quickly finds himself an unwelcome presence in the apartment where he lives with his taciturn stepfather (Dionys Mascolo) and emotionally distant mother (Ingrid Caven), whose make-up-caked pallor bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the ghosts who inhabit the haunted house of Celine et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, Jacques Rivette, 1974). Through his experiences, we see in Loeb’s eyes a boy who craves love and affection but isn’t getting any, and who will displace that absence into the socially expected goal of getting laid. His plight is treated with a curious sense of detachment, however; the suffering is there, but dulled, lingering under the surface, far away from any possible catharsis.

For the film’s director, it seems, it was a wound that lingered. Born and raised in the town of Pessac and spending his early adolescence living with his grandmother,2 Eustache was, like Daniel, sent away at the age of 13 to live with his parents, pulled out of school and given a job.3 This experience – a reflection of working-class economic necessities and values in early 1950s France – shaped him deeply as a person and a filmmaker, his lack of educational qualifications marking him as an outsider within the broader cohort of Nouvelle Vague filmmakers with whom he was loosely associated. As Lebrun puts it, Eustache “was the only one from Cahiers du cinéma who wasn’t the son of a bourgeois,”4 and it was perhaps this feeling of cultural exclusion that both fuelled his antagonistic orientation towards the industry in which he worked, as well as helping to shape his contrarian political sensibilities.5

Much as The Mother and the Whore – born from recorded real-life conversations6 – served as an unsparing reproduction of Eustache’s calamitous adult relationships, Mes petites amoureuses was intended, in the director’s own words, as “a work of restitution of a lived reality.”7 In both films, considerable real-life pain – both his own and that of others – is being mined. But while the object of grief in Mes petites amoureuses is a childhood prematurely snatched away, Eustache is hardly crafting an idealised portrayal of paradise lost. Rather, even the film’s comparatively idyllic early sequences have no shortage of casual cruelty.

From the outset, we see young protagonist Daniel as a sensitive and innocent teenage boy who longs for approval, but who is also capable of wantonly hurting other children, whether punching another boy in the stomach unprovoked or firing a cap gun in a girl’s face for failing to acknowledge him when he cycles past. Sexual assault and harassment, too, are distressingly prevalent: in one early sequence, the protagonist recounts deriving pleasure from pressing himself against a young girl during a church procession. This is in keeping with how Mes petites amoureuses portrays young male sexual exploration: a space that largely involves boys going as far as they can with the girls they encounter, with little regard for their consent or welfare (for the girls’ part, they are sometimes willing participants; other times, it is left to them to break away when a boy has already begun groping them). Far from the nostalgic chronicle of juvenile romances that the film’s title might suggest,8 there is little that is tender or romantic in the film.

Writing about Mes petites amoureuses, critic Alain Bergala notes that “the greatest wounds of childhood … are readily included in small scenes of no importance to others, where the child sees with terrible lucidity the exact place to which he discovers himself already condemned.”9 Considering the director’s own deeply troubled adult life, it seems likely that these filmic reproductions of his past were not so much personal exorcisms as projects dealing with something that, for Eustache, was and would remain unresolved. Daniel, his film seems to suggest, is too far gone now: his wisdom has been gotten, and he won’t be shedding any tears. But our heart can still ache for him.

Mes petites amoureuses/My Little Loves (1974 France 123 min)

Prod: Pierre Cottrell Dir, Scr: Jean Eustache Phot: Néstor Almendros Ed: Françoise Belleville, Vincent Cottrell, Alberto Yaccelini Cos Des: Renée Renard

Cast: Martin Loeb, Jacqueline Dufranne, Dionys Mascolo, Henri Martinez, Jacques Romain, Ingrid Caven, Marie-Paule Fernandez, Maurice Pialat, Pierre Edelman

Endnotes

  1. Stefan Solomon has written in detail on Loeb’s performance and how it was developed; see Solomon, “The Imitation Game: Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves,” Senses of Cinema, no. 88, October 2018.
  2. While the first part of the film is set in Pessac, it was shot over 400 kilometres away in the commune of Varzy, which Eustache felt more closely resembled the town of his upbringing. See Le Temps des amoureuses press kit, 2009, p. 7.
  3. See Lisa Katzman, “Absolute Necessity,” Film Comment, 10 July 2023.
  4. Françoise Lebrun, cited in Katzman, ibid.
  5. Nick Pinkerton writes that The Mother and the Whore demonstrates an “incipient conservatism” and “almost predicts the sexual counter-revolutionary line of Michel Houellebecq”. Pinkerton, “His Little Loves”, Moving Image Source, 12 June 2008. Luc Moullet, a contemporary of Eustache’s and fellow member of the outer orbit of the Nouvelle Vague, likewise detects “a sort of right-wing anarchism” in the film. Moullet, “Blue Collar Dandy,” Film Comment, September–October 2000.
  6. Pinkerton, ibid.
  7. Eustache goes on to recount that he wished “to reconstruct (his) childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” Jean Eustache, quoted in Fernando Ganzo, “Les 12 Travaux d’Eustache,” So Film, no. 49 (Spécial Jean Eustache), April 2017, p. 46, cited in “Mes petites amoureuses”, Sabzian, 3 December 2018.
  8. The title is, in fact, quite apt: in quoting from a bracingly misogynistic stanza in an Arthur Rimbaud poem of the same name – “My little loves: / I hate you. / I hope your ugly tits blossom / With painful sores.” – it nods to Eustache’s unsentimental intentions. Rimbaud, Rimbaud Complete, trans. Wyatt Mason (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), p. 59.
  9. Alain Bergala, “Childhood of a Filmmaker,” Cahiers du cinéma – Spécial Jean Eustache, supplement to no. 523, April 1998, p. 12, cited in “Mes petites amoureuses”, Sabzian, 3 December 2018.

About The Author

David Heslin is a film critic and editor based in Melbourne, and a committee member of the Australian Film Critics Association. He previously edited Metro and Screen Education and served as a member of the Senses of Cinema editorial team.

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