In one scene in the middle of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), fooling around a bit too enthusiastically with his lover Veronika (Françoise Lebrun, the ‘whore’ to Bernadette Lafont’s ‘mother’), ignores her when she asks him to slow down and let her remove her tampon. As she tries to retrieve it, Alexandre, too delighted by the situation to keep it to himself, picks up the phone and calls a friend to tell him the story as it continues to play out before him (the friend, sadly, fails to answer). This is probably the funniest scene in the movie, but it’s also no less bleak than the rest of The Mother and the Whore, graphically demonstrating Alexandre’s insensitivity and self-absorption-nothing is private for Alexandre, everything is material waiting to be turned into an anecdote or to contribute to the persona he carefully maintains and presents to the world-and as such it’s also emblematic of the remarkable balance between humor and despair that Eustache maintains throughout the film, a balance that extends to his body of work as a whole.
Seeing all of a filmmaker’s movies together makes for a wonderful experience, not only because it allows you to evaluate the films individually but also because it lets you see how the films fit together like pieces in a puzzle, forming an image of the artist’s inner life and intellectual development over time. But tempting as it is to smooth over the rough edges, a richer self-portrait of the artist emerges when you consider the inconsistencies within and between each film. To watch a Jean Eustache retrospective (like the one recently held at Lincoln Center in New York City) is to be strongly tempted down the path of generalization on the one hand (several of his films, particularly the four fictional ones, are almost obsessively similar) and, on the other, to be just as forcefully expelled from this path (he had an equally obsessive compulsion to upset expectations).
It’s a testament to the contradictory nature of Eustache’s work that I’m able to consider The Mother and the Whore his greatest film, even though it’s by no means my favorite. There’s more at stake in The Mother and the Whore than in any other Eustache film and it’s almost certainly his most heroic achievement. But it’s a difficult film to love, exhilarating yet alienating. The Eustache film I love the most (I’ve seen them all except Numero Zero (1970), his filmed interview with his mother, and Odette Robert (1980), a shortened version of the same film, both of which were missing from the retrospective) is Le Cochon (1970), a beautiful, sensitive, big-hearted short documentary that shows not a trace of the despair and defeat radiating from Eustache’s fictional films. Le Cochon, which Eustache co-directed with Jean-Michel Barjol, records the slaughter and dismemberment of a pig and the process of transforming the dead animal into various food products. It’s Eustache’s most beautiful film because it’s his most curious and graceful. He and Barjol filmed the movie over the course of a single day, shooting footage separately and then editing together; their purpose was primarily to observe, to record. There’s a great affinity between this film and the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman-a similar directness (there are no voice-overs, explanatory titles, or interviews) and a similar luxurious freedom from preconception or interpretation. Wiseman, passionately and with an almost missionary desire, shows us things neglected by almost all other filmmakers-the banal, allegedly undramatic daily experiences of cops, teachers, welfare workers, hospital workers, judges, soldiers, and so on (experiences that of course prove to be almost ridiculouslydramatic and full of interest). The same attitude radiates from every moment of Le Cochon – the delight of making a faithful record of an experience, both the experience of the filmmakers over the course of one day and the daily experience of the farmers. The movie begins with the slaughter of the pig, a wrenching thing to witness-but instead of passing judgement on the farmers, it opens out into something much more generous and understanding, a portrait of a way of life, an appreciation of physical work, of daily toil, of the process of transforming one thing into another.
Eustache also made a pair of documentaries (both titled La Rosière de Pessac [1968, 1979]) which are very much in the same vein but a shade more experimental. In 1968, he filmed an annual ceremony in his hometown known as La Rosière de Pessac, in which one young woman is chosen by the mayor and other prominent locals as the town’s most virtuous, a title she claims until next year’s event. Eleven years later, he returned to film the same ceremony. Both documentaries approach the subject with the same spirit of inclusiveness and generosity that gives Le Cochon its grace and beauty, but these are talkier films and funnier ones, and it’s very much to their credit that they aren’t content to mock the ceremony. There’s certainly an element of absurdity, of provincial comedy, here that’s missing from Le Cochon. But like Le Cochon, the beauty of these films lies in Eustache’s enthusiastic acceptance of the contradictions at play: in Le Cochon he finds great beauty in a process that follows from the slaughter of a living being; in La Rosière de Pessac, he captures the comedy of the ritual without letting it overwhelm what is valuable and admirable about it. It’s easy to laugh at the old-fashioned values being propagated or to cringe at the fact that the girl herself is barely allowed to speak during the proceedings. But Eustache concentrates on the light-heartedness of the celebration, the humor and even at times the self-awareness shown by the mayor and the other town members, the young women’s understanding of the ritual’s significance, and, above all, the social importance of this kind of annual, communal ritual. Eustache gets a lot of mileage out of the implied contrast between the conservative nature of the ceremony and the upheaval going on in France at the same time. But far from making easy points at the expense of the people on screen, he devotes a long section of the film to the pastor’s liberal, frank, and articulate speech marking the beginning of the ceremony, a speech which not only acknowledges but fully engages the events in Paris and unambiguously praises the students. What’s on screen is not a contrast between old-fashioned, traditional values and political perceptiveness and open-mindedness, but a particularly graceful meeting of the two.
The film ends with a short speech by the oldest living former Rosière de Pessac, who begins by matter-of-factly declaring, “I think this year is my last among you because, Mr. Mayor, I am 92 years old,” her words evoking the importance of the ceremony and the profound sense of continuity it provides through its linking of the past, present, and future. The frail old woman ends her speech, “Now I say to the new maiden, may you be like me, to live to see 68 more maidens crowned.” Without ignoring all that is dubious about this ceremony, Eustache refuses to ignore how effectively it binds the community, or how intuitively all the participants, both the active (the town leaders) and the passive (the girls themselves), seem to recognize this and to enjoy playing their part.
Given the nature of the ceremony and the role it plays in bridging the generations, the idea of returning to record the event years later feels like a natural extension of the subject. But it still seems appropriate to draw a connection between La Rosière de Pessac and Eustache’s more experimental two-part film, Une Sale Histoire (1977).
In the first part of Une Sale Histoire, Eustache’s friend Jean Nöel-Picq tells the story, before an audience of several, mostly passive, spectators, of his discovery of a spy-hole from the men’s bathroom into the women’s at a Paris restaurant. He spares no detail in describing his addiction to this voyeuristic opportunity and the precise ritual involved. In the second part of the film, an actor (Michel Lonsdale) plays Nöel-Picq in a nearly identical repetition of the first part. In the case of both La Rosière de Pessac and Une Sale Histoire, both parts can stand alone, and in both cases the second film significantly changes the way we see the first. In La Rosière de Pessac, the doubling releases meanings that are primarily social and cultural: by the time of the second film, Pessac has grown (so that it’s no longer possible for the judges to choose a young woman familiar to them all) and changed (both physically, with the appearance of several towering apartment buildings, and culturally-one of the townspeople notes that the year before some of the women weren’t interested in being chosen). In Une Sale Histoire, it serves a more experimental, self-conscious end: the first film can stand alone as a record of the performance of a natural storyteller, an amateur but enthusiastic entertainer, but the second part broadens the film’s subject, turning our attention towards the nature of movies and performance.
Une Sale Histoire is the closest thing I know to a movie version of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. The Borges piece masquerades as an appreciation of the work of a man who has set himself to produce an exact replica of parts of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, not copying the novel, but actually recomposing it word for word by means of pure intellectual effort. In the middle of the piece, the narrator critiques a passage from the new novel which appears to be identical to a passage from the original, but which he claims is not only distinct but actually superior (it naturally being far more difficult to write the passage exactly as Cervantes wrote it without the benefit of being Cervantes) (1). Borges’ piece can be seen as a wicked satire on criticism, but that would be to ignore the observation, intuitive but surely accurate, that a text is more than the sum of its words-that factors outside of the text necessarily play a part in how we read it. The joke is all the funnier for being impossible to deny-the second passage really is different from the first.
Une Sale Histoire is actually not as similar to the Borges story as it could be: it might have been interesting had Eustache and his actors truly attempted to replicate the first part of the film, down to the smallest detail, but they had something slightly different in mind. There are clear, intentional differences between the two versions-the second is much more polished, the storytelling more concentrated, the language perfected, and the delivery more subdued. But the difference that comes across most vividly has nothing to do with Eustache’s directorial or conceptual decisions-it’s the difference between a film that is (or, more accurately, that we believe to be) once removed from reality and a film that’s twice removed. It’s not a question of what’s on-screen but of our own perceptions-there’s a difference between watching a man telling a story which we believe he actually experienced and watching a man telling a story which he is pretending to have experienced.
Make no mistake, though-it’s not that Nöel-Picq is simply being while Lonsdale is acting. Both are actors, both are giving performances-but the nature of their performances is very different. Lonsdale sees his performance as part of the film-he has conceived of a certain character and, in collaboration with Eustache, is laboring to create it. Nöel-Picq’s acting is not a part of the film, it is the subject; the first part of Une Sale Histoire is like a concert film, a record of a performance. I don’t know how much planning or rehearsing went into the filming of this first part, but his performance feels very spontaneous-his pleasure in his own storytelling skill, in his own invention, his awareness of the hold he has on his audience, comes across loud and clear. So in a way it doesn’t even matter whether or not the story is true-the film is a documentary not on the story but on the storytelling. Acting, then, is perhaps the central subject of the two films together, rather than filmmaking. It presents a contrast between acting as an art form and acting as an expression of personality. Acting in the second part is a way of creating a character; in the second part it is an aspect of character.
There’s more to Une Sale Histoire than its cinematic experimentation, though. Jean Nöel-Picq himself is very significant in the context of Eustache’s filmography, and represents an important connection to The Mother and the Whore and to Eustache’s earlier fictional films. In fact, the scene from The Mother and the Whore with which I introduced this piece might almost have inspired Une Sale Histoire-it’s not hard to imagine Jean Nöel-Picq in the same situation picking up the phone and calling a friend. Both Une Sale Histoire and The Mother and the Whore consist of the same strange mixture of transgressive humor and extreme sexual frankness on the one hand and a reactionary and oppressively grim attitude towards the characters’ behavior on the other. Eustache’s works would be unimaginable without a liberalization of attitudes towards sex, but his view of this newfound freedom, and of the relations between the sexes generally, is an unrelentingly dark one.
This is true from the very beginning. His first short, Les Mauvaises Fréquentations (1963), is a New Wave-esque, picaresque portrait of two male friends, bored and on the prowl, and their encounter with an equally aimless young woman. The central character is a blueprint for Alexandre in The Mother and the Whore, arrogant, unself-critical, and absurdly confident. He and his best friend see a woman in the street whom they accost and convince to accompany them to one club and then another. The two men-who are all talk-turn out to be failures in practice. While they bask in their reflected self-satisfaction and lecture each other on being more aggressive, a series of men ask the woman to dance. Eventually, the two main characters steal her wallet (an act that is particularly cruel because she has just finished telling them that she has two kids and no job and has been living in a hotel) as punishment for unveiling their impotence (“That’ll teach her to fuck with us”). Afterwards, they show not a hint of remorse, remarking only “I’d love to see the look on her face.”
These are repellent, worthless characters, but more than their actions, what makes the film so depressing and claustrophobic is the sense of despair that permeates every moment. Les Mauvaises Fréquentations has a resourcefulness and a looseness, an infectious rhythm, that’s not so different from early Godard or Truffaut. But the looseness doesn’t take; it distracts us, but not for long. The characters here are always on the move, always full of snappy and entertaining conversation, but it gradually occurs to us that all their talk and aimless activity is meant to keep them a step ahead of the depression and emptiness that’s at their heels, tugging at and constantly threatening to overtake them. And so it is with the film as a whole-it’s entertaining and humorous on the surface, but a wave of profound despair looms overhead, never quite breaking over us but blocking out all the light.
Eustache followed Les Mauvaises Fréquentations with Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (1966), a very similar film, and somewhat of a further step towards The Mother and the Whore, with Jean-Pierre Léaud (as Daniel) taking his place at the center and essentially creating the character he would develop seven years later, an aimless, self-absorbed, morally stunted young man. The blatantly criminal, detestable behavior of the characters in Les Mauvaises Fréquentations has been toned down (Daniel and his friends shoplift and pull off a scam at a bingo parlor, but nothing they do has the sting of the robbery in the earlier film), and the comedy intensified-the title refers to Daniel’s job posing for photographs on the street in a Santa costume, a job he comes to treasure because, in his own words, “Girls who once had snubbed me now smiled and had their photos taken. At first I just touched their shoulders but soon I realized I had nothing to fear. Soon I was groping every one of them.” Daniel is far more sympathetic than the main character in Les Mauvaises Fréquentations, partly because the emphasis is on his failings, awkwardness, and weakness, and also because of Léaud’s presence. It’s difficult to dislike Léaud, to judge him-he brings an element of absurdity, of transparency, to every role he plays, so that no matter how detestable his behavior, we seem to see the human being underneath. But the nagging sense of despair has not dissipated-it’s still hovering.
In both these early shorts, relations between the sexes is a matter of resignation and empty distraction rather than connection or genuine feeling-there’s no love or tenderness, only groping and conquest. For all Jean Nöel-Picq’s storytelling skill and wit and Eustache’s exhilarating experimentation, Une Sale Histoire expresses the same conviction. Nöel-Picq clearly gets a kick out of pushing his story to the limits of what is socially acceptable, testing his audience, daring them to be offended. But that’s not to say that he doesn’t mean what he says. After spending hours and hours at his post before the spy-hole, he observes that “all the hierarchies about the body had been overturned” so that he had come to believe that “the mirror of the soul is the pussy,” and this seems to me to be as blunt an expression as possible of the state to which the relations between the sexes, in Eustache’s view, have been reduced. The frankness in Une Sale Histoire or The Mother and the Whore is not a sign that Eustache condones this new freedom-he’s not enthusiastically pushing the envelope even further but rather wallowing in the human wreckage he sees it as having produced. It’s not that sex has been elevated to a spiritual level but that religion, morality, and love have been reduced to the physical plane. Later in Une Sale Histoire, Nöel-Picq complains that he’s sick of taking women to movies, talking to them, learning about them-“That’s the part I hate most.” It’s not that “the mirror of the soul is the pussy,” but that the pussy is the soul now, as close to it as most men care to get anyway. Eustache seems to believe that sexual liberation has drained male-female relations of any mystery and emotion they might once have had, that sex has become so central that a great emptiness has washed over society.
The Mother and the Whore is the culmination of this attitude, an oppressive, grim, despairing work, a film without hope. It revolves around Alexandre and the women in his life, primarily Veronika, a young nurse he spots at a café and begins a relationship with, and Marie, a slightly older, earthier woman he’s been living with for some time.
Alexandre’s monstrous self-absorption and utter lack of moral instincts flow directly out of the central characters in Eustache’s two early fictional shorts, but Alexandre has raised self-dramatization to the level of an art and honed his act so craftily that Daniel’s vulnerability and inevitable failure have vanished, at least apparently. In the beginning of the movie he’s rejected by Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), a woman he claims to love passionately and to want to marry, and he discourses at great length on the depth of his feeling for her and the profound suffering she’s causing him. But as soon as Gilberte is out of the picture, he’s thrown off the role of wounded, unrequited lover and stepped into his prowling male persona (the one he defaults to whenever he’s on his own). Like Jean Nöel-Picq in Une Sale Histoire, Alexandre is a performer (and the performances are remarkably similar). It’s natural to behave differently in social situations, to play to the audience, but what makes Alexandre so memorable and so creepy is that he never drops the act, even when he’s alone. You can sense him, at all times, watching himself experience, living his life as if he’s inhabiting a novel. Some of the most nightmarishly funny scenes in the movie are the ones in which he spends time with his best friend (Jacques Renard). Their relationship has no basis in shared interests or any emotional connection; they have simply worked out a convenient, mutually satisfactory arrangement whereby each serves as an audience for the other, a sort of training partner for them to try out their acts on. They are equally self-absorbed, equally arrogant, and equally amoral (when his friend shows off a stolen wheelchair he has in his apartment, Alexandre asks who he stole it from and he responds blandly, “I don’t know-some cripple, no doubt”).
The Mother and the Whore is the great Eustache film, I think, because it contains all the others. The grim, unsparing view of the relations between the sexes expressed in the fictional shorts and in Une Sale Histoire is not only present but intensified; but so is the generosity and openness of the documentaries. The difference between Le Cochon, or La Rosière de Pessac, and The Mother and the Whore is that Eustache’s world-view, his attitude towards the times and towards his characters, dominates the fictional film, covering it like a blanket and perhaps to some extent suffocating it. It’s a question not of optimism versus pessimism but of the freedom he allows his characters. In the documentaries, Eustache trains his eye on the subject and respects the contradictions he finds there. But in The Mother and the Whore, his dark, pitiless conclusions concerning his characters are the foundation on which he builds the film.
But if he never lets his characters off the leash, he leaves them a vast space in which to roam, giving the film a dramatic structure that’s radically open and formless. The Mother and the Whore is almost all talk, much of it digressive and aimless. It’s a movie that’s about conversation, about talk, almost as much as it’s about relations between the sexes and the consequences of sexual freedom. The desire to film the process involved in the butchering of a pig or the ceremony of La Rosière de Pessac has become the desire to film the way people talk to each other, specifically in Paris in the early ’70s. The conversations in The Mother and the Whore go on much longer than they need to, they have a wholeness and a fullness, a sense of having been liberated from the pressing demands of the narrative, that you’ll find in very few other movies (although this is another strong connection to Wiseman’s work). It’s a quality that contrasts sharply with Eustache’s next work, Mes Petites Amoureuses, an autobiographical film about his childhood. Mes Petites Amoureuses has moments of great beauty and, at the end, a certain tenderness. But mostly it’s every bit as unsentimental and despairing as the earlier film-the main character, another Daniel (this time played by Martin Loeb) proves to be right at home among Eustache’s other creations, attacking an innocent classmate (“For no reason, without knowing why, I hit him. I looked in his eyes-he wasn’t even angry”), firing a cap gun in a little girl’s face when she fails to acknowledge him, and groping several girls. Here, though, the unrelenting sordidness is conveyed through brief, stunted scenes, memory-flashes rather than chunks of experience.
The Mother and the Whore‘s far more generous structure leaves the actors space to create living, breathing human beings, to draw us into their characters and give us something to perceive outside of Eustache’s bare conception, something perhaps messier and fuller. But, above all, the film would be half of what it is without Jean-Pierre Léaud. Who else could possibly have created a character so insufferable and yet so appealing? His Alexandre is utterly transparent and repulsive and yet somehow he convinces us that these women would be drawn to him. And at the end, when Alexandre loses control and becomes a passive spectator to the interactions between Veronika and Marie and then to Veronika’s seismic monologue, Léaud unmasks him, dropping the arrogance and the charm and revealing to us a shocked, wounded creature.
It’s with regard to Veronika, though, and largely because of Françoise Lebrun’s performance, that Eustache’s vision of human nature and human suffering rings most true. Veronika has a greater hold on our sympathies than Alexandre-she shows a maturity and a self-awareness that are beyond his understanding-but she’s a more deeply stained character in a way, because she has fallen to his level. When she says to Alexandre, “Things don’t mean much to me,” it’s much more painful than if he were to say it, because we don’t see any evidence that anything has ever meant anything to him. She is better than Alexandre, she can see his failings, so why does she involve herself with him? It’s a question that could just as easily have been asked of the woman whom the main characters in Les Mauvaises Fréquentations rob. There too, the suggestion was that the woman was morally and intellectually superior to the male characters but that her superiority had assisted her little in her search for fulfillment and companionship. Both she and Veronika put up with the men in their lives not because they don’t know better but because empty companionship is better than solitude-they expect almost nothing from human interaction, but they still go through the motions, settling for the little it has to offer them.
Eustache’s hopelessness expresses itself most devastatingly through Veronika than through Alexandre, because his failings, however representative they may be, are his own problem, but Veronika’s fall represents an indictment of an entire society, a waste. And her suffering feels especially genuine because it is so undramatic. Very few movies are able to convey a state of suffering without glorifying it, without providing some sort of dramatic catharsis. But Veronika’s pain doesn’t surface until the very end. Until then it’s something we sense vividly-thanks to Lebrun’s brilliant performance and because Eustache lets us spend so much time with the character-but never quite come face to face with. Her suffering is an emptiness, a defeat-she’s not ennobled by it, she’s hollowed out. Even when she turns the tables on Alexandre and unveils her pain and her past in a drunken monologue, there’s no evidence that she’s gained any ground or that anything will change for her now. It’s just a drunken outpouring, a scene she’ll have forgotten by the next morning-significant more as humiliation for Alexandre than as catharsis for her. It’s in The Mother and the Whore, and with regard to Veronika in particular, that the contradictions in Eustache’s personality-his dark, despairing worldview and his often open, liberal style-clash most dramatically and yet resolve themselves most harmoniously. Eustache’s characterizations are pitiless, but in dramatic terms, generous. There’s no sting in passing judgement on characters who have come made-to-order; it’s only by loosening his grip on them, allowing them to become slippery enough to wriggle free of his grasp, that Eustache’s dark vision takes hold, because it’s only then that the despair becomes as much theirs as it is his.