Home

In an already complex, contested filmography, Numéro Zéro (1971) has always been the hardest of Jean Eustache’s films to see, yet Eustache himself spoke about it as a major leap forward in his understanding of film; as indicated by the title, it is a self-conscious return to zero, a return to a new mode of making films. As Eustache explains in a 1971 interview published by La Revue du cinéma

[P]arallel to the “erasing” that I tried to do from film to film since the beginning I wanted to be “revolutionary,” in other words to not make steps forward in cinema, but to try to make big steps backwards to return to the source. The goal I was trying to attain since my first film was to return to Lumière … I’ve always been against new techniques. Maybe I’m “reactionary,” but I believe it’s “revolutionary”.1

Eustache’s description of this creative enterprise as “revolutionary” invites comparison to Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971) and Jacques Doillon’s L’an 01 (Year 01, 1973) – two ambitious French films of the early ’70s whose titles also obliquely allude to the student demonstrations of “Mai 68” and the protestors’ demand for ideological and social reset. In this sense, Eustache’s iconoclastic gesture harbours a kind of ‘politics’ not dissimilar to those described by Sally Shafto in her book The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, namely: “to return to zero, to reject the traditional idea of the “author,” to awaken consciousness and to recognize the creativity of every individual”.2

Eustache’s return to zero in Numéro Zéro operates on a number of different levels. Firstly, it ‘returns to the source’ in a genealogical sense by making the subject of the film Eustache’s grandmother – Odette Robert – who is the only person to appear in front of the camera aside from Eustache and, briefly, his son Boris Eustache. The film adopts the form of a very loose interview, in an oral history mode, wherein Robert, prompted on occasion by Eustache, recalls a series of anecdotes from her life which testify to the many financial hardships, infidelities, illnesses, and deaths that her and her family endured over the years in the outskirts of Bordeaux. Her eyes obscured by dark sunglasses, Robert delivers these stories with a remarkable, yet intense, insouciance – undoubtedly a sign of her resilience – while slowly downing several glasses of whisky and chain-smoking cigarettes. The film, as Eustache explains, is also “an ideal” return to the most basic function of cinema as an apparatus – an experiment in filmmaking which he considers to be “a lot more important than its content”.3 Having dabbled in cinematic minimalism with La Rosière de Pessac (1968) and Le cochon (1970), Eustache concluded that to make a film as revolutionary as the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée du train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1896) it was necessary to dispense with shot/reverse shot editing and sophisticated camera angles so as to undertake the simple task of “filming an event in its full duration”.4 For Eustache, this “really banal” choice was itself a kind of underappreciated research into the “willed powerlessness” of cinema’s “mechanical recording” – in other words, into the possibilities of the technology of the film camera itself. In this respect, Numéro Zéro is at once a film about the material conditions within which Eustache and his family were raised, and the ‘material conditions’ of cinema as a technical instrument whose most basic ‘Lumièrian’ function is to record time.

Beyond its status as a testimony film and an exploration of the medium, Eustache’s film is a remarkable study of those habitual gestures which imbue ordinary conversation with a kind of underappreciated theatricality. The genealogical similitudes of Eustache and Robert are evidenced above all by their eccentric conversational mannerisms. Eustache compulsively fidgets with his cigar, the ashtray, and the tablecloth, his eyes downcast as he listens intently to his grandmother. Robert distractedly rotates her glass of whisky and paws at her cigarette, which is more often poised in the edge of the ash tray than gripped by her hand or mouth. These quotidian actions create a counterpoint to both the unsettling content of Robert’s monologue and the captivating rhythm of her parole. Her speech flows rapidly from one vowel sound to another, pausing on occasion to drag her cigarette or sip her drink. More substantial interruptions occur on occasion as a result of Eustache’s cinematographers who are instructed to keep the camera rolling at all times. Adolfo Arrieta and Philippe Théaudière capture the conversation on two fixed 16mm cameras – running ten-minute reels in parallel throughout the film – which face Robert from slightly different angles, both to the right of Eustache’s obscured face. As an act of ‘radical’ non-intervention, Eustache chooses not to edit out the moments where the reels are changed over, with the director halting the conversation rather than the film, to insert slates as reels are changed. In this respect, Eustache’s film is at once artful and artless: these simple but emphatic technical interventions have been intentionally left in the film to foreground both the process of cinematic recording, and Eustache’s desire to capture all the actual events that occurred during the recording. Filming the material conditions of filming is just as important – and just as interesting – as the equally specific human histories Robert recounts, and the human gestures of the participants. 

Another way to understand Eustache’s return to zero is as an engagement with a non-hierarchical accumulation of details pertaining to what simply happened during the shooting. As he says, “If you shoot, you don’t need to make a movie, it makes itself”.5 Like a painter abandoning or detourning the history of perspective, Eustache – at the time working as an editor on projects for other directors – abandons montage altogether, to propose the notion that editing can also be choosing to not cut. In this respect, cinema requires only what is captured by the recording apparatus and nothing more. This capture of time and space, Numéro Zéro intimates, not only provides more than enough information to constitute narrative cinema, but its open-ended, accumulative nature is the ontological condition of cinema itself. It is up to the viewer to determine how to intelligise the specific and unrepeatable information, recorded only in the moment it existed. This understanding of mise-en-scène as a kind of paradigmatics of recorded time and space, informs and drives all of Eustache’s later work; his avowed efforts to, as Luc Moullet notes, “reconstruct his childhood: every wall section, every tree, every electric pole,”6 in Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974); his choice to play with repetition in Une sale histoire (1977) and to play with attention in Les Photos d’Alix (1982); and most critically his attempt to turn his own life into fiction in the dense, durative, overwhelming monologues of La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973). 

In the pre-digital era of hard-to-see films, Numéro Zéro was long one of the hardest to see. Eustache decided, at the time, to exhibit it at a single screening with eight friends present7 and then shelve it. Until recently it’s generally only been available as a shorter and more conventional digest made for French TV that was intended to raise money in his poverty years, Odette Robert (1980). But there’s a lot of pleasure in Numéro Zéro’s aggregation of details, gestures, and postures: few films feel as alive. It’s a fine chronicle of a previously unarchived moment of French history, presented as an unfiltered and unrelenting testimony. It’s also a radical film about what it can mean to make a film, about what it feels like to listen to a conversation, and about what is essential, and what is inessential, to making cinema.

Numéro Zéro (1971 France 111 min)

Prod: Jean Eustache, Luc Moullet Dir, Scr, Ed: Jean Eustache Phot: Adolfo Arrieta, Philippe Théaudière

Cast: Jean Eustache, Odette Robert, Boris Eustache

Endnotes

  1. Jean Eustache, “Interview with Jean Eustache,” La Revue du Cinéma, No. 250 (May 1971). Translated by Ted Fendt and republished in Mubi Notebook (September 2012). https://mubi.com/en/notebook/posts/interview-with-jean-eustache.
  2. Sally Shafto, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968 (New York: Zanzibar USA, 2000), p. 10.
  3. “Interview with Jean Eustache”
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid
  6. Luc Moullet, “Blue Collar Dandy,” Film Comment (September-October 2000).
  7. “Interview with Jean Eustache”

About The Author

Corey P. Cribb is a film scholar, and occasional film programmer, with a broad interest in French film theory, film history and film culture. In 2023 he joined the Melbourne Cinémathèque committee. His published writings on cinema and film theory can be found in Cultural Politics, French Studies Bulletin, Australian Book Review and Senses of Cinema. Campbell Walker is an independent filmmaker, artist and occasional writer from New Zealand, now based in Naarm. His fields of interest include cinematic duration, collaboration and improvisation. He is currently very slowly finishing his fifth feature, Here at the End.

Related Posts