The Mother and the Whore, 1973

“I might like a woman because she was in a Bresson film”, muses the outwardly disaffected and ironically monikered idle intellectual (and consummate poseur) Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who, like the Macedonian great historical figure of his etymological namesake, is embarking on an exploration into yet another uncharted terrain of a seemingly insatiable thirst for physical conquest: the affection – or more vulgarly, the seductive means that would lead to the intimate occupation – of a handsome and voluptuous young nurse named Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), who responds with a faint, casual smile for the verbose, self-absorbed stranger. It is a wry, knowing moment that underscores the detached, tongue in cheek self-reflexivity of the film, recalling an earlier episode as Alexandre sits at his favorite café (a frequent destination with an apparently unlimited source of potential, fledgling conquests), Deux Magots, waiting in vain for Veronika – having orchestrated a plan to feign casual indifference on the nature of their scheduled afternoon introductory tête-à-tête with the aid of his equally inutile and obliging friend (Jacques Renard). Veronika, as it turns out, never arrives, and instead, Alexandre encounters his former lover Gilberte once again, played by the captivating and doe eyed Isabelle Weingarten who had, indeed, appeared in a Robert Bresson film as the suicidal Marthe in the tonally similar Four Nights of a Dreamer.

But even before this presumptive, chance reunion with Gilberte at the Deux Magots occurs, Alexandre would already exhibit his inscrutable pattern of emotional manipulation, often in an instinctive moment of irresponsible capriciousness, having earlier articulated such florid and dramatic – albeit abstract and conceptually alien – declarations of love, heartbreak, pining, and eternal waiting to the reluctant Gilberte (omitting such hypocritically incidental details as rushing out of his current, live-in lover Marie’s (Bernadette Lafont) apartment in order to catch up with his former lover on her way to the university): a vacuous and self-serving gesture that would culminate in his insincere marriage proposal to Gilberte upon learning that she is contemplating marriage to someone else (identified in a subsequent cameo appearance by Jean Eustache). Inevitably, it is Alexandre’s aimless life trajectory that forms the tenuous and unstable emotional center of the film, as Veronika and Marie struggle with the emotional ambiguity of their difficult relationships with their adrift and disillusioned lover.

The Mother and the Whore is a raw, unsentimental, and incisive slice-of-life exposition into the demoralization, deflated euphoria, and pervasive rootlessness of the May 68 generation (a period marked by widespread student protests and worker strikes throughout France) in the wake of the failed counterculture revolution. Jean Eustache employs high contrast black and white, medium framing and close-ups, spare (almost squalid) interiors, and natural milieu to create an atmosphere of visually distilled, organic hyperreality that reflect the profound desolation, ambivalent direction, and meaningless rituals that define the unresolved emotional and psychological states of Alexandre, Veronika, and Marie. However, in contrast to the figuratively transcendent images of manual labor in Bresson’s minimalist and dedramatized cinema, Eustache’s illustration of physical activity is inherently inert, self-destructive, and escapist: experimental drug use, intimations of suicide (that sadly presages the filmmaker’s own cause of death in 1981), and Veronika and Marie’s passive, almost autonomic response to Alexandre’s initiations of sex serve as transitory surrogates to the actual process of human existence and true intimacy. Moreover, interpersonal communication is reduced to vacuous, distended conversations (or more appropriately, monologues by the self-consumed Alexandre) that similarly devalue human connection to impressive, but ultimately meaningless words. In the end, it is this underlying emptiness that the filmmaker exposes through Alexandre’s moribund, pleasure-seeking, existential limbo: the trauma of a generation struggling to come to terms with profound change, cultural alienation, and the collapse of a once seemingly attainable ideal.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

Sidebar