The Mother and the Whore

The best film released in 1998 was made in 1973. Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore is a bracing, difficult work, unflinching in its ambivalent depiction of the emotional maelstroms of sex. A critical and commercial success upon release, it has remained virtually unseen in the U.S. until its re-release in 1998.

Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Alexandre, an impossibly pretentious, narcissistic young bohemian. He leaves the bed of Marie (Bernadette Lafont), the slightly older shop owner he sometimes lives with, in order to propose to Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), his former lover. Rebuffed, he takes up with Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), a promiscuous young nurse. The film explores the tensions and recriminations of the triangle that results.

Eustache’s film is both an extension of and a departure from the nouvelle vague: while the film’s gorgeous black and white evocation of Paris has the look and feel of early Godard, the filmmaker he most resembles is John Cassavettes. The performances are naturalistic and unaffected, the script seemingly (though not, in fact) improvised. The result is a unique hybrid, the intimacy of the performances kept in check by the rigorously detached filmmaking. We empathize and identify with the characters, but we’re always kept at a slight remove.

Like Cassavettes, Eustache depends too heavily upon length for his effects. At 3 1/2 hours, the film is an hour too long. Yet there are moments when the length is an advantage: scenes that seem to meander beyond our ability to concentrate (or care) any longer suddenly snap back into focus with a single line or gesture. The film strikes a precarious balance, always pushing the audience too far for too long, then rewarding us with insights achievable only through the film’s excesses. Its strengths are inseparable from what makes it so very difficult.

The film is also very funny: for its first half, it plays like a skewed romantic comedy, Ernst Lubitsch in graduate school. Leaud’s Paul is at once an insufferable, pompous boor and a romantic idealist. He manages to charm and appall simultaneously – you see why this self-involved, big-nosed, unemployable lout never sleeps alone – and the film plays his pretensions for laughs. His scenes with Jacques Renard, playing a dandy even more smitten with himself than Leaud, are droll marvels.

The performers are uniformly brilliant. Leaud was never better. He thoroughly inhabits a character whose behavior ranges from the desperate to the despicable. Though engaging (and for the first hour, hilarious), he never relies on the facile charm of his work with Truffaut. And Francoise Lebrun is even better: in her final, devastating monologue, one begins to feel like an eavesdropper to an especially wounding private scene. Yet for all her raw emotionality, Lebrun maintains a tranquil poise. Her calm anchors the film, keeping it from falling into Method cliches.

The film makes a fascinating companion piece to the previous year’s Last Tango in Paris. Bertolucci’s film was a meditation on sex and death. Through the sheer force of Brando’s characterization, it is finally a man’s film about how a man copes with middle age. Eustache’s film is more complex. Made in a Catholic country at the moment when the anarchy of the sexual revolution was being challenged by feminism, it grapples with the implications of that time for women. For all his libertinism, Paul remains a chauvinist who deems his women mothers or whores, however their behavior might challenge his attempts at categorization.

To the film’s credit, it explores its themes dramatically, never opting for easy answers or pedantic speechifying. We see the ideas in action – real people suffer real consequences for their mistakes – rather than hear them explained.

It is one of the great tragedies of world cinema that Jean Eustache made only a handful of films before his 1981 suicide. It’s a loss on par with the death of Jean Vigo or the stunted career of Orson Welles. He is said to have considered The Mother and the Whore an autobiographical work. For anyone, particularly someone so young, to have captured their fears, their inadequacies and their pretensions with such honesty and wit is astonishing. To have had such gifts and so few opportunities to use them is tragic.

Gary Mairs

image