by Ayeen Forootan Film Kicking the Canon

The Mother and the Whore | Jean Eustache

August 10, 2020
Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

Despite winning the Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore was controversial enough to be dismissed at the time of its release as empty salaciousness by both adversarial audiences and critics. Fortunately, over the years much of the moral hand-wringing gave way to reappraisal, and the film has since managed to reclaim some of its original Cannes enthusiasm and become a staple of canon consideration. What’s obvious, from a present vantage, is that a good deal of the power to be found in Eustache’s film lies within its panoramic reflection and preservation of the Post-May ’68 French zeitgeist – an era of enormous disappointment and unfulfilled revolutionary dreams and ideals, especially among the youth. Alexandre (played by the iconic French New Wave actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud) belongs to this lost generation; a voluble bohemian dandy who idly and aimlessly flits between days and nights, different women, one Parisian café to another – a sleepwalking flaneur haunting Left Bank neighborhoods. He is the embodiment of a cynical pseudo-intellectual with no obvious morals, a verbalistic quaint who both arms himself and conceals his fragility in words that often sound both poetic and uselessly absurd. For Alexandre, life is nothing but affecting this persona and seducing women, under the guise of some living-for-the-moment ethos.

The film opens with Alexandre waking next to his older mistress, Marie, (Bernadette Lafont) in their shared apartment, before he immediately sneaks out to borrow a car from a woman downstairs in order to meet with his former girlfriend, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), only to find that she is no longer interested in him and intends to marry someone else. But as guided by Eustache, Alexandre is both self-consciously carefree and egoistic; it isn’t surprising, then, that he pivots course and indiscriminately goes after the next woman he sees – Veronika, a young nurse whom he randomly encounters at Les Deux Magots café and who becomes his next lover, as Marie openly accepts this love triangle configuration. In fact, it is this particular ménage à trois which invites the title’s blasphemous irony: Marie – Mary, the Holy Mother – and Veronika – Mary Magdalene, the Whore.

Alexandre, who is financially, emotionally, sexually, and even existentially dependent on the women in his life and who lives as a wannabe troubadour, vacillates between Marie and Veronika (a brunette and a blonde) as if he is suspended between the past and the future, the earthly and the heavenly, the banal and the ethereal. Alexandre acts ostentatiously, molds and polishes his words in a way that gives the sense that he is entirely oblivious to his outer life; Veronika perhaps articulates his state best when she tells him he lives as if in a novel. From an aesthetic standpoint, Eustache gifts his characters a certain expansiveness: as a writer, he provides a vast time and space for them to express their thoughts and emotions through extensive conversations; as a director, he keeps his camera attentive, listening closely to these articulations of self and observing such sentiments and gestures in mainly eye-level medium shots that vary between solo, two, and three shots – the fact that Eustache never delivers more comprehensive long or establishing shots, such as of cityspace, demonstrates a faithfulness to his characters’ experiences and their interior focus. His fade ins and fade outs, in combination with his austere, charcoal black-and-white 16mm photography, intensifies the soporific world these characters inhabit. Indeed, The Mother and the Whore is a film largely lacking in dramatics, so to speak, one dedicated to the mundanity and minutiae the characters are so heavily fixated on. It’s as inspired by the earlier films of La Nouvelle Vague auteurs like Truffaut and Godard as it by the works of ancestral French masters such as Renoir and Bresson, and it executes the particular synthesis of these influences in such a placid and natural manner as to even suggest an improvisational tenor.

In The Mother and the Whore, Eustache structures and forms the dynamics of his mise-en-scene around the bodies and voices of his actors. It’s fair to assert that by a certain definition we never observe the characters in any serious action; although they walk and shuffle about, the broader kinetics here remain very trivial and possessing no specific significance – Eustache even abruptly cuts scenes mid-action, such as when Alexandre chases Gilberte into a university building or follows Veronika along a walkway when she leaves the café. For a not insignificant group of French citizens, this was a time of personal lethargy and socio-political paralysis, and Eustache prefers to reflect this through depictions of his lead trio troupe either sitting or in prone postures, absorbed in inert chit-chat, imbibing and smoking cigarettes to excess. The setting of Marie and Alexandre’s shared apartment is also of accord with this sensibility of inactivity, as almost everything from a big mattress to a bottle of J&B to a pile of vinyls seems rooted to the spot, much in the same way as the characters. In this room the only thing that they can be relied on is the wall, as if whenever the characters lean back onto its rigid surface – which also metaphorically shelters them from the world outside – their suppressed emotions and traumas manifest themselves: Alexandre leans back on this wall while hopelessly trying to empty his mind and concentrate on a book while Marie adopts the same figural position while struggling to dissipate her emotions within her overwhelming solitude.

But more importantly, this is also where Veronika manages to disarm Alexandre, disrupting his familiar loquaciousness: in a memorable, melancholic and drunken monologue, she reveals all her existential despairs and anxieties, indulging her most profound thoughts about loneliness, the futility of sex without love, and her hidden desire to have a baby. It is here, for the first time, that Alexandre exhibits something of the epiphanic, his face a demonstration of shocked silence. He jumps to action, and follows Veronika (in an unabrupt scene) into her apartment to confess his love to her. Veronika vomits in a basin – a Sartrean nausea, you could say – and Alexandre sits on the floor, leaning against the refrigerator, his eyes open for the first time. Somewhere in the middle of the film Veronika is attempting to convince Alexandre to watch a film, and he replies: “I like down-to-earth films.” This is perhaps the best descriptor for Eustache’s stylistic approach in The Mother and the Whore: a down-to-earth rendering of the lovelorn and the downtrodden, humans struggling with the most terrestrial and essential moments of life, every day and every night.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.

You Might Also Like

In Review | Online film and music criticism