April 14, 2008
La Peine perdue de Jean Eustache, 1997
Angel Díez's reverent and elegiac rumination on the iconoclastic, deeply personal cinema of Jean Eustache, La Peine perdue de Jean Eustache (The Lost Sorrows of Jean Eustache) hews closer to essay film than straightforward documentary, a muted, brooding tone piece where loss, grief, and mourning are reflected in the images of empty spaces, fragmented figures, and extended silences. Shot in high contrast black and white that evokes the stark, rough hewn quality of The Mother and the Whore, Eustache's conflicted sense of inspiration and desolation is articulated in the delayed, enigmatic remark from his abandoned script La Peine perdu, dispassionately read by actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, that opens the film: "For the first time, I think I see things more clearly". Disenchanted by a cultural complacency that has led to a lack of engagement in "real politics", Eustache's aesthetic approach converges towards the idea of a marginal cinema, not from a production or economic perspective, but from an observational point of view - challenging the spectator into new ways of seeing - whether through the humor and nobility of quaint, local customs that define small village life in the forgotten, out of fashion, "other France", or the moral stagnation of a lost generation in the wake of a failed May 68 revolution, or the relationship between images and sound that define the nature of cinema itself.
Not surprisingly, Eustache considers his role in filmmaking to be that of archivist instead of author, a respect for the subject and sacredness of images that is especially reflected in his provincial documentaries, Le Cochon and La Rosière de Pessac (and indirectly, Numéro Zéro). On his decision to remake La Rosière de Pessac, Eustache argues that the annual celebration could have easily been remade many times over, noting that the local mayor revived the village festival in 1896, loosely coinciding with the creation of the earliest Lumière films. In this sense, the Rosière ceremony represents not only a chronicle of French history, but is also integrally connected to the evolution of cinema. Moreover, on Le Cochon, Jean-Michel Barjol reinforces the idea of a filmmaker's archivist role by respectfully disagreeing with Eustache's earlier comment that their individually shot footage would have produced a different film from the actual final collaboration, arguing that their independent efforts would have invariably converged towards a near identical film to the resulting collaborative one, arbitrated by the (re)assertion of reality into the shot images. Ironically, the archivist versus author debate is seemingly upended in a subsequent episode in which an image of Eustache is momentarily observed walking along the other side of a wall during the dressing sequence of Le Cochon, and becomes a fitting metaphor for Eustache's abbreviated legacy: the faint, fleeting image of a wandering spirit, and the indelible imprint left behind in its passing.