Composed as an uninterrupted conversation with Jean Eustache’s sprightly, talkative, nearly blind, septuagenarian maternal grandmother, Odette Robert, Numéro Zéro prefigures the studies in narrative construction of Une Sale histoire in its illustration of performance and interpenetrating film reality. Inspired by their conversation during an afternoon stroll, the film reflects Eustache’s assumed role as archivist, creating a two camera composite, unedited recording of Odette’s memories of village life. Told with self-effacing humor and bracing candor, Odette weaves organically through the extraordinary density of her seemingly “ordinary” human experience, from the trauma of her mother’s death from tuberculosis when she was seven years old, to her strained relationship with her demanding stepmother, Marie, to the austerity of life during the war, to her turbulent marriage to a skirt-chasing war veteran, to the deaths of her three young sons from childhood illnesses, to the care of her elderly, terminally ill father and stepmother during their final days, and lastly, to her arrival in Paris (at Eustache’s invitation) to help take care of her great-grandson son, Boris. As in the Le Cochon and La Rosière de Pessac, Eustache captures, not only an overlooked, rapidly disappearing way of life, but also the continuity of a collective history itself, a passing between generations that is implied in the film’s silent preface showing Boris accompanying Odette to a corner shop, before briefly walking away on another errand (similarly, in La Rosière de Pessac, the oldest living Rosière symbolically passes the torch to the next generation). Moreover, in maintaining the footage of clapperboard marks – often, interrupting Odette in mid thought to signal the necessity of a reel change – Eustache also creates a sense of intersecting reality, briefly disengaging Odette (and the spectator) from the reality of her vivid memories towards the parallel reality of her role as storyteller in Eustache’s latest film (an awareness of the artifice of film construction that is further reinforced in a Dutch television representative’s coincidental call to Eustache inquiring about purchasing rights to Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes). It is in this dual role as personal testament and performer that Numéro Zéro also becomes a metaphor for coming full circle, where life and film are integrally connected to the evolutionary cycle of chronicling complex, human history.
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