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In his influential 1966 new wave film Masculin féminin (Masculine Feminine), Jean-Luc Godard defined a generation of French adolescents as “the children of Marx and Coca Cola.” Capturing the tension between the seductive impact of American consumerism and the rise of communist idealism stemming from the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, Masculine Feminine is widely regarded as emblematic of the new wave in its encapsulation of what film critic Adrian Martin refers to as the movement’s “youthful, anarchic spirit of freedom and spontaneity”.1 Although Godard and his Cahiers du cinéma compatriots of François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer are generally considered to be the key contributors to the new wave movement, its ripples were considerably broader than just these figures. Released in the same year as Masculine Feminine, the second featurette of French filmmaker Jean Eustache, Le père Noël a les yeux bleus (Santa Claus has Blue Eyes, 1966), contributes to the new wave with a film that is less concerned with anarchic expression than personal introspection. While Godard framed the period through political preoccupations, Eustache’s film forms part of a sustained focus that runs through his oeuvre on intimately capturing the unassuming textures of French society. As Eustache commented in a 1971 interview, Santa Claus has Blue Eyes “was conceived from my own memories, I felt very alone, an adolescent, and I wasn’t finding myself at the movies or elsewhere: so I made this film out of this frustration”.2 

Set in Narbonne, the town in the South of France where Eustache came of age, Santa Claus has Blue Eyes follows the exploits of Daniel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a twenty-something whose central pursuit in life is to purchase a duffle coat before Christmas. The acquisition of the coat is not merely an attempt to be stylish; it also underlines a subtle commentary on consumerism, class and inclusion whereby Daniel believes that the new coat will allow him to be “dressed appropriately to be accepted in” the fashionable café of Le France, as well as to improve his chances with the opposite sex. Generally eschewing work and leading a life of impoverished flânerie that revolves around smoking cigarettes, stealing books and cheating at bingo, Daniel funds his desire to be fashionably attired and enticing to women by taking a job as a Santa Claus posing for festive photos. 

Although Eustache is often referred to as a successor to the new wave, Santa Claus has Blue Eyes possesses a sensibility that aligns with the movement, and this is conveyed in particular in the film’s representation of the restless and melancholic mood of 1960s French youth culture. Moreover, the use of location shooting and hand-held cameras by cinematographers Daniel Lacambre and Philippe Théaudière; the casting of new wave poster boy Léaud as Daniel; and the involvement of Godard, who was the producer of the film and was instrumental in its development by supplying leftover filmstock from the Masculine Feminine shoot, all point to the film’s new wave lineage. Eustache even goes so far as to make a self-reflexive wink at the viewer during an early scene in which Daniel walks past a movie theatre that features posters for Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske, 1940), Suna No Onna (Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) and Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). As Daniel pauses to gaze at The 400 Blows poster, which features a young Léaud in his breakout role, Eustache playfully situates his film in relation to Truffaut’s classic, which inaugurated the new wave movement. 

This inclusion of a fragment of Léaud’s real filmography in the fictional world of Santa Claus has Blue Eyes intriguingly gestures towards a documentarian impulse that Eustache would fully explore in his later documentaries, such as Le Cochon (1970) and Numéro zero (1971). The combination of the location shooting on the streets of Narbonne and Daniel’s voice-over narration, which structures the film through his recollections and shifts between confessional and factual, reinforces Eustache’s interest in blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction cinema. This is most hilariously realised when Daniel commences his job as Santa Claus and discovers that donning the Santa costume delivers more than the expected financial perks: 

Under my beard, I started to feel confident. I could see friends and enemies walking by […] The girls who had never looked at me before were now paying attention […] At first, I was timid, and I was holding them by the shoulders and then I realised I didn’t have to hold back. I grabbed all the girls that got their photos taken and none resisted.

Although the visual style in these scenes and throughout the film is clearly indebted to the naturalistic conventions of cinéma-vérité, a sense of realism was secured by placing Léaud on the street to pose with women who had no idea that he was, in fact, an actor and still acquiesced to be fondled.3 Drawing on the manner in which the Santa Claus costume enables Daniel’s true identity to be disguised, fellow filmmaker Luc Moullet perceptively writes that Eustache’s films “play a perpetual game with the viewer, who must struggle (in vain) to make sense out of what the director is concealing, and to determine whether its fiction or documentary”.4

While the simplicity of the film’s plot allows Eustache to flirt with different forms of cinematic narration, it also provides space to explore themes of desire and belonging. Considering the continual failure of Daniel’s romantic dealings, Jared Rapfogel affirms that “relations between the sexes is a matter of resignation and empty distraction rather than connection of genuine feelings – there’s no love or tenderness, only groping and conquest”.5 Although Daniel is offered a short reprieve from this loneliness in his Santa costume, he admits at the end of his tenure that his “return to the civil life looked difficult.” This bittersweet acknowledgement is compounded when Daniel eventually saves enough money to purchase a duffle coat and proudly wears it to Le France. Sitting in the café’s al fresco area while smoking a cigarette and drinking a martini, the moment appears far less triumphant than what was fantasised. In the words of a statement that accompanied a recent Eustache retrospective at the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Daniel, like many of Eustache’s characters, provides an insight into “[Eustache’s] own tragedy, that of a man who […] never felt he belonged to anything”.6 Indeed, as a loosely autobiographical cinematic snapshot, Santa Claus has Blue Eyes ultimately reinforces Serge Daney’s statement in Eustache’s obituary that he was “an ethnologist of his own reality”.7 

Le père Noël a les yeux bleus /Santa Claus has Blue Eyes (1966 France 50 minutes)

Prod. Co: Anouchka Films Prod: Jean-Luc Godard Dir: Jean Eustache Scr: Jean Eustache Mus: René Coll, César Gattegno Phot: Daniel Lacambre, Philippe Théaudière Ed: Christiane Lack 

Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Gérard Zimmermann, Henri Martinez, René Gilson

Endnotes

  1. Adrian Martin, “Masculin féminin: The Young Man for All Times,” The Criterion Collection, 19 September 2015.
  2. Jean Eustache, quoted in Ted Fendt, “Interview with Jean Eustache,” MUBI Notebook, 24 September 2012.
  3. Mitchell Abidor, “Autobiography as Ethnography: The Films of Jean Eustache,” Cineaste, Volume 49, Issue 1 (2023): p. 30.
  4. Luc Moullet, “Better to Burn Out Than to Fade Away: Blue Collar Dandy,” Film Comment, Volume 36, Issue 5 (2000): p. 42.
  5. Jared Rapfogel, “Desire and Despair: The Cinema of Jean Eustache,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 11 (December 2000).
  6. Jean Eustache, ethnographer of himself,” CE Noticias Financieras, 23 February 2024.
  7. Serge Daney, quoted in Lisa Katzman, “Absolute Necessity,” Film Comment, 10 July 2023.

About The Author

Danica van de Velde is a writer based in Perth, Western Australia. Her writing on film has been published in a Dance Mag, Another Gaze and Screen Education, as well as the Refocus book collections on Michel Gondry and Susanne Bier. She was the recipient of the Senses of Cinema-Monash Essay Prize in 2019 for her essay on the cinematic self-adaptations of Marguerite Duras.

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