by Allan Fish
(France 1973 219m) not on DVD
Aka. The Mother and the Whore
p Pierre Cottrell d/w Jean Eustache ph Pierre Lhomme, Jacques Renard, Michel Cenet ed Jean Eustache, Denise de Casabianca m W.A.Mozart, Jacques Offenbach
Jean-Pierre Léaud (Alexandre), Bernadette Lafont (Marie), Françoise Lebrun (Veronika Osterwald), Isabelle Weingarten (Gilberte), Jacques Renard (Alexandre’s friend),
As it is with any art form, the ending of a given movement or style is hard to pin down. One might say Nights of Cabiria represented the end of neo-realism, The Testament of Dr Mabuse the end of German Expressionism and Touch of Evil the end of old school film noir. To these one must add Jean Eustache’s film for representing the requiem to the nouvelle vague. And yet how accurate is it to say so? The nouvelle vague was famous for its jump-cuts, speedy takes, fast pace and irreverence. Eustache’s film doesn’t have any of that. It might be fairer to call it a requiem to the late sixties. It’s like an autopsy on the pseudo-intelligentsia, the generation of sexual liberation and the Cultural Revolution. It depicts a Paris still trying to pick up the pieces of the infamous events of 1968 but rather with a protagonist who obstinately refuses to pick up the pieces, preferring instead to analyse them to the point where everything becomes meaningless.
All of which might make you think the film is pretentious and a time capsule of its era, and you’d be right. Yet it is many things besides. It has a plot, but Eustache approaches it in the same way his male protagonist might have done. In simple terminology, it concerns the love life of a young man who strings along three women at once; his one time lover Gilberte, who he impetuously asks to marry him, the melancholy Veronika who makes up for this by sleeping with enough men to outstrip Messalina, and the loyal Marie, who he shares a flat with. As a character, he’s insufferable, self-obsessed, analytical and a proto-intellectual. To quote the recent Blowing Smoke, he doesn’t so much drop names into conversations as carpet bomb them (Marlene Dietrich, Sacha Guitry, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Simon, Edith Piaf, The Rolling Stones, The Black Panthers, take your pick). One might ask what it is about him that is so magnetic to these women, and one only takes it on trust that their descriptions of him as a great lover are true.
It’s somewhat perfect that Alexandre is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor whose career ran parallel with the nouvelle vague itself. There are essences of his Truffaut personas there, for those who can remember them, while Lafont recalls earlier work for Chabrol. Both are quite outstanding, while Lebrun matches them every step of the way as Paris’ easiest lay. In actual fact there are remembrances of so many films here, with the first sighting of Lebrun outside the café mentally undressing Léaud seeming a reverse of the infamous nude dissolve in Vigo’s A Propos de Nice. When Weingarten disbelieves Alexandre’s sincerity she observes “what novel are you being a character in?” and, by the end of its 220 minutes, you realise just how apt that statement was.
There are times when one is staggered by Eustache’s audacity, with seemingly endless monologues hypnotising from first to last, a three-in-a-bed sequence played as naturally as if sitting down for dinner, a candour towards sexual descriptions and hang-ups that stretches to an f-word count to rival Joe Pesci. Over thirty years on it’s difficult to categorise, especially considering Eustache made only one more film before taking his own life. He remains, like Pen Tennyson and Michael Reeves, a might-have-been. A director who perhaps stared with such intensity into the darkest sexual recesses of the human psyche that he simply exhausted himself. Certainly Maman is an exhausting experience to sit through, in turns maddening and simply brilliant, but when French critics called it the best French film of the seventies, they weren’t stupid. Imagine it now, if you will; true, one could easily see Béart, Jacob and Paradis in place of Lebrun, Lafont and Weingarten, but it would be a miserable experience. Vomiting into a bucket no longer an act of homage, but one of nausea.