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Mother and the Whore (1973)
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
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
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
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