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In Une sale histoire (Jean Eustache, 1977), a dirty story is told – twice. The work comprises two notionally identical short films in which a middle-aged man narrates a story of erotic obsession to a mixed audience. Each film has its own style. The first film features revered theatre actor Michael Lonsdale, is shot in 35mm with the formal measure of a contemporary Eric Rohmer film, and includes stately credits in white Roman font on a black background. The second stars Eustache’s friend, the improviser and raconteur Jean-Noël Picq (credited with the film’s story), is scrappily shot in 16mm, and includes the handwritten credits of an amateur or experimental film. The first film is about ten minutes longer than the second, partly due to Lonsdale’s more deliberate delivery, but also because of a crucial framing narrative absent in the second film. Despite these surface and temporal differences, the content of each film is virtually the same. The male narrator tells his story, and his mostly female audience responds.

Une sale histoire is usually translated as A Dirty Story, which was adapted as The Dirty Stories of Jean Eustache for a North American touring retrospective in 2023. This is a literal and idiomatic translation, but it misses some of the nuances of the original title. Yes, “sale” can mean “dirty” in the sense of “blue”, “off-colour”, treating of sexually explicit material that is not considered acceptable in ‘polite’ society – although it is harder to imagine a more polite society than the audiences in both films. But “sale” takes the idea of dirt further, into the areas of abjection, the rejected, waste and refuse – that which is despised, marginalised, or isolated by society.  

The dirty story is set in a dirty place, a public toilet, where a hole near the floor allows male patrons to peep at women relieving themselves. The public toilets are the ‘dirty’ secret of the establishment they serve – kept downstairs, out of sight, a necessary evil, a taboo. The café is the site of polite society – communality, consumption, order (opening hours, menus, licenses). The toilets function as the dark other of the café, or its unconscious – Freud’s crucial concept of ‘the joke’ and psychological import of humour centre on bourgeois men telling each other dirty stories like the one in the film.1 The toilets are where people excrete, remove impurities and excess, before returning to the public space with their public face on.  It is where, in this story, men debase themselves for voyeuristic pleasure, discomfit their bodies, wallow in piss, put pressure on their hearts and lungs, and masturbate. They perform by proxy the sexual violence on women that they cannot in the civilised, feminist world upstairs. Each narrator bemoans the social work he has to do with modern women, such as talking, going on dates, ‘winning’ or ‘earning’ them – instead of the idealised, allegedly ‘direct’ contact they yearn for.

“Histoire” does mean “story”, but it also means “history” (with or without a capital ‘H’).  Une sale histoire positions itself in the history of French intellectual engagement with eroticism, sexual violence, and the politics of sexuality. The first film, with its ambiance of the literary salon and Louis XV-style furniture, evokes the libertinage and nested narratives of 18th century literature, wherein intellectual sophistication and verbal mastery attempted to process ‘base’ desires, where the Enlightenment met its dark opposite. The most notorious embodiment of this tendency was the Marquis de Sade, who is discussed by each narrator in the context of the dirty story. Sade was experiencing a third revival in 20th century French culture at this time, after the Surrealist recuperation in the 1920s and 1930s and Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist appropriation in the 1950s. Sade informed Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (first volume published in 1976) and was one of the subjects of Roland Barthes’ philosophical treatise Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971), and so was part of the post-modern, post-structuralist, anti-idealist discourse with which Eustache’s characters are familiar.  

Barthes’ conflation of pornographer Sade with religion builds on the work of Georges Bataille, a Catholic, philosopher and writer of violent pornography. The structure, setting, and narration of the ‘dirty story’ owes much to Bataille.2 As do the central idea of the hole as at once material fact, incitement to transgression, and a transcendent portal, and the themes of degradation, voyeurism, and physical transformation. Bataille was a dissident Surrealist, and the idea of a ‘secret’ Paris concealing magical, hidden spaces available only to the initiated flaneur (or “professional pervert”, as the narrator calls his flatmate), trades on Surrealist fictions by the likes of André Breton and Louis Aragon (the latter, like Bataille, a specialist in pseudonymous pornography). This was also the period when sex movies were ubiquitous in French cinemas, by 1976 accounting for up to 25% of all production.3

I wonder if Eustache had seen the work of American experimental filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin before he started filming Une sale histoire. Retrospectives of Dwoskin’s work had played in Paris in 1975 (at the Cinémathèque Française) and 1977 and was praised by the likes of Jacques Rivette and Louis Marcorelles. The Libération critic Philippe Azoury would subsequently write texts on both Dwoskin and Eustache, while Dwoskin would engage in his own way with the Surrealist pornography of Aragon and Bataille. Une sale histoire could be read as an inversion of a film like Dyn amo (Stephen Dwoskin, 1972). This was one of several Dwoskin films that inspired the epochal feminist essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) by his friend and neighbour Laura Mulvey. Where Eustache refuses to visualise his “dirty story”, Dwoskin shows everythingDyn amo consists of four parts, each showing a female stripper performing her act. The film has been read as an allegory for the violent viewing mechanisms of the commercial film – offscreen male viewers, including the director-cameraman, watch and control the female performers. This tacit offscreen violence becomes literal as men charge on stage, shout, and order the performers about; in the long, unwatchable final section, they wreak such psychic and physical violence that the performer is reduced to traumatised tears.

Nothing so brutal occurs in Une sale histoire, and yet it shares a structural affinity with Dyn amo. The narrators’ “dirty story” is about men who stare at women, but what we actually see is audiences of women staring at men, intently and unnervingly. In both parts of Eustache’s work, the male narrator is analogous to Dwoskin’s female strippers, demonstrating his skill with his ‘act’, which he performs to an audience of a different gender. Just as the strippers’ performance is demarcated by the stage, so the narrators have their own performative space, the sofa. The female listener-watchers don’t physically invade this space, but do so in another way, appropriate to the performance they witness. The male narrator is a master of words, discourse, and the voice, and so it is words, discourse, and voices that are used against him. The women refuse to allow the “dirty story” to have the status of a ‘finished’, coherent masterpiece. They add to it, interpret it, mock it, appropriate it. They effectively ‘castrate’ the narrator – the cushion on Lonsdale’s sofa has a patterned shape that resembles an axe. The active listeners replace the solo narrators’ monologues with dialogue, polyphony, a chorus. Like motormouth Alexandre at the end of La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1973), the narrators in Une sale histoire are defeated and made mute. And like that film, what had seemed to be a ‘reactionary’, misogynistic work “that women hate” (to quote its tagline), turns out to be Eustache’s most systematic skewering of the male ego and the cultural power it represents.

Une sale histoire (1977 France 47 min)

Prod: Jean Eustache Dir: Jean Eustache Scr: Jean Eustache, based on a story by Jean-Noël Picq Phot: Michel Cénet, Pierre Lhomme, & Jacques Renard Ed: Chantale Colomer 

Cast: Michael Lonsdale, Jean-Noël Picq

Endnotes

  1. Sigmund Freud, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious, translated by Joyce Crick (London et al : Penguin, 2002), p. 95.
  2. For an earlier, female narration of a Bataille anecdote in film, see Godard’s Week End (Weekend, 1967).
  3. Jill Forbes, The Cinema in France After the New Wave (London: British Film Institute & Macmillan, 1992), p. 8.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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