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Related Notes: La Peine perdue de Jean Eustache (Angel Díez).

La Maman et la putain, 1973
[The Mother and the Whore]

Leaud/Lebrun/Lafont"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.

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Mes petites amoureuses, 1974

LoebIn Luc Moullet's essay, Better to Burn Out than to Fade Away: Blue Collar Dandy, Moullet frames Jean Eustache's decision to film his grandmother Odette Robert for Numéro Zéro within the context of the postwar generation's mindset:

"Grandparents played an important role in the lives of many French filmmakers during this period. The generation born in the Twenties often sent their children to the countryside to live with their grandparents: this allowed the children to be better fed during the German Occupation, and the parents to enjoy life immediately after the war. The result was a reverence for grandparents and a rejection of the father and mother - a crisis that fertilized a number of artistic careers."

This sense of dislocation (in some ways, a retreat towards an idealized past), absence, and rootlessness captures the awkward adolescence of a young boy - later identified as Daniel (Martin Loeb) - in Eustache's semi-autobiographical film, Mes petites amoureuses as well. Nostalgic without being sentimental, the autofictional image of a restless youth embodied by Daniel - an impotent rage that is revealed in an early episode when he attacks a classmate without provocation at the schoolyard - invites immediate comparison with François Truffaut's iconic alterego, Antoine Doinel or the fragile Laurent in Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart. Forced to leave the comfort of his doting grandmother's house when his mother (Ingrid Caven) moves to another town in order to live with her Spanish lover, the turning point is presaged in Daniel's parting conversation with his neighboring playmates on the way to the train station, remarking that he was not leaving for the summer, but "for always" - the acknowledgement of a juncture away from childhood that is also reinforced in his first unaccompanied train trip.

Rather than a chronicle of the serial misadventures of a wayward young hero, Eustache's penchant for distilled naturalism and rigorous attention to detail suggests even greater affinity with Maurice Pialat, a shared aesthetic that is further reinforced through Pialat's appearance in the film as a visitor who challenges Daniel on his academic knowledge (placing great importance on learning the fundamentals that also reflects their like-minded approach to filmmaking). Having abandoned his education when his mother could not afford to pay for incidental school expenses, Daniel bides his time drifting through the bucolic small town, observing - and mimicking - their local rituals, working as an apprentice in a mechanic's shop, and falling into the company of other aimless, out of school boys at a café watching people go by. In its patient observation and consciousness of time's passage, the film also converges towards Eustache's pastoral documentaries, a conscious attempt to capture a quotidian memory destined to fade away: the novelty and exoticism that the arrival of the traveling circus represents, the town square promenades where people choreograph their "chance" meeting with potential romantic interests, the matinees where strangers steal kisses under the cover of a darkened theater. In this respect, Daniel's imitative gestures not only serve to reinforce his learned social behaviors as a way of conforming to the world around him, but also become figurative rehearsals in his own journey towards maturity. It is this transformative journey that is poetically crystallized in his bicycle ride with friends to a neighboring town - a day trip that culminates with Daniel revealing his name to a girl (and to the audience) for the first time after a hard fought moment alone with her - in a sense, breaking away from the pack to assert his own identity.

© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved. First posted on The Auteur's Notebook, 04/29/08.

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