Where to begin with Jean Eustache

Out of sight for decades, the frank and fearless films of French director Jean Eustache have now finally been restored and made available. Here’s how to tackle them.

28 August 2023

By David Thompson

My Little Loves (1974)

Why this might not seem so easy

In an unsurpassed era of cinematic scandals – think of The Devils (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971) or La Grande Bouffe (1973) – the controversy provoked by Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore at the 1973 Cannes Festival might seem surprising. A self-styled ‘intimate epic’ shot in unadorned black and white, lasting over three and a half hours and set solely in dowdy Parisian apartments and cafés, the film portrayed a love triangle whose participants spend most of their time… talking.

But the verbal fireworks eventually reveal a deep core of despair; most of the outrage the film provoked came from its very strong language. Eustache gave us an astounding example of confessional cinema, both emotionally unsparing and appallingly funny, which transcends its very specific place and time – a period of lost dreams following the failure of the May ’68 revolution.

The film has become a touchstone for many directors in France and beyond who have explored similar territory. It has been highly praised by Olivier Assayas, Gaspar Noe and Harmony Korine, who called it “the greatest movie about love”. Richard Linklater, Mia Hansen-Love and Cristi Puiu placed it in their most recent Sight and Sound top ten. For some time hard to see (for complex rights reasons), the film – along with Eustache’s entire output – has now been lovingly restored. 

While Jean Eustache knew well the French New Wave as personified by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut – he even worked for the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma – his film seemingly arrived from nowhere. Eustache grew up in Pessac, close to Bordeaux in the south-west of France, and was driven to move to Paris by his cinephile passion. Once there, he made two short films and a number of observational documentaries.

Only with the commercial success of The Mother and the Whore was Eustache able to realise the feature he had long planned to make about his teenage years, My Little Loves (1974). But when this did not achieve a comparable success, he became more and more withdrawn, ending his own life at the age of 42 in 1981. 

The best place to start – The Mother and the Whore

There’s no question that The Mother in the Whore stands above everything else Eustache made, so it’s worth diving into the deep end. The length of the film (3 hours and 40 minutes) may seem intimidating given the absence of obvious high drama or visual kinetics, but the extraordinary dialogues and brilliant acting carry the audience on a completely absorbing journey.  

The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Eustache wrote the part of Alexandre, a central character of unremitting self-obsession and tireless articulacy, with the impish New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud in mind, and it is arguably his greatest screen performance. Alexandre’s dandyish manners and rakish intentions closely mirrored those of Eustache himself, a seasoned flâneur who relished sitting in cafés and chatting up women. And the female characters were based on the director’s past lovers, both the older, more resourceful Marie (Bernadette Lafont) Alexandre lives with (and off) and the promiscuous nurse Veronika (Françoise LeBrun) who he is determined will replace a girlfriend who has just dumped him.  

Although many believed the film to be partly improvised, absolutely every word was scripted by Eustache, who would not allow his actors (or in the case of LeBrun, former lover and non-actor) to make any changes. What is especially liberating is the sense of real time unfolding. People tell jokes and anecdotes in full, they listen intently to the records they play (an eclectic selection encompassing Zarah Leander, Edith Piaf and even Deep Purple), they smoke profusely, they communicate by land-lines.

Eustache’s absorption in the minutiae of social behaviour has its roots more in classic French literary traditions than the imperatives of mainstream narrative cinema. Even the dated attitudes, the jibes at women’s liberation and the political cynicism feel honest and truthful to the time and place. And it’s worth noting that when the film was re-released in Paris last year, it found an entirely new audience and was a major success. At one cinema, the admissions exceeded those of Top Gun: Maverick (2022).

What to watch next

The logical move after seeing The Mother and the Whore is to watch its successor, My Little Loves (Mes petites amoureuses). The subject is again autobiographical, but this time Eustache recounts his early adolescence in Pessac and Narbonne, growing up as a lonely boy suspicious of the ways of adults and deeply troubled by the rituals involved in dealing with girls.

Again his method is highly rigorous, close to that of Robert Bresson in its simplicity and purity. Eustache also used a mainly non-professional cast, and shot this time in colour (employing Truffaut and Rohmer’s master of natural light, Nestor Almendros). Wholly unsentimental in its viewpoint, and as silent as The Mother and the Whore is deafening, the film is full of haunting sequences, including an epiphanic visit to the cinema to see Ava Gardner in glorious Technicolor in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951).

The real Pessac featured in two documentaries – The Virgin of Pessac (1968) and The Virgin of Pessac 79 (1979) – Eustache made a decade apart, when he revisited the town to film the quaint annual ceremony to elect ‘the most virtuous girl’. The contrast between life there in 1968 (apparently oblivious to the upheavals in Paris) and 1979 is subtly drawn, as Eustache is determined not to pass judgement or editorialise, rather simply to record events much as the Lumiere brothers would have done at the beginning of the century (and cinema). A similar ethnographic impulse lies behind The Pig (1970), this time filmed in the Massif Central where we follow the slaughtering of the animal through to the manufacture of sausages. 

The Virgin of Pessac 79 (1979)

Before The Mother and the Whore, Eustache made two short-form fictional films, both comic and sad, originally released together under the title Bad Encounters. Robinson’s Place (1963) was based on a story recounted to Eustache by a young woman who met by chance two men in Montmartre and then persuaded them to spend time with her. The film has the air of an improvised drama, yet like everything that followed, it was all tightly scripted. The second film, Father Christmas Has Blue Eyes (1966), is set in Narbonne, and marked Eustache’s first collaboration with Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Eustache’s last years were plagued by emotional and financial hardships. His creative output was mainly limited to short films ostensibly made for educational purposes. Most personal was Numero zero (1977), an unedited interview with his grandmother who had raised him. Her life story is far from a comforting one, but she tells it with impressive fortitude. A much shortened version was prepared for French television, but it’s only very recently that the full-length material has become available to see.

Where not to start

A Dirty Story (1977) could be considered Eustache’s last feature film, though it certainly doesn’t conform to any usual expectations. It’s made in two parts, one shot in 35mm, the other 16mm, both representing the same scene – a man tells a group of friends about his discovery of a basement toilet in a bar where women could be spied upon from the men’s room. In the more ‘professional’ version, the story is told by the actor Michel Lonsdale, in the second, by Eustache’s friend Jean-Noël Picq, who it seems originated the story, which may or may not be true.

There is clearly a game of aesthetics at play here – which is the more ‘real’ of the two versions, is one fiction and another documentary? But it’s essentially an act of provocation, challenging the audience to deal with the immense gap that exists between the two sexes. Like The Mother and the Whore, the film provokes discussion, but there is less of the sheer pleasure factor of its predecessor.

Love, Pain and Cinema: The Films of Jean Eustache runs at BFI Southbank in September 2023.

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