Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore is a time capsule of French youth post civil unrest of May 1968

Many critics accused The Mother and the Whore of being 'immoral' and 'obscene' at 1973 Cannes Film Festival. Today, of course, the film's 'transgressions' are hardly provocative.

Baradwaj Rangan July 11, 2020 17:58:10 IST
Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore is a time capsule of French youth post civil unrest of May 1968

When the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas made a Top 10 list for the Criterion site, he included Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita. He said it summed up an era, a culture, a city. He said the film was of historical importance. “Maybe it is the great Italian film of that period, in the same way that The Mother and the Whore, by Jean Eustache, is the ultimate nouvelle vague film made 10 years later, by someone who had been a marginal figure of the movement, and embodying a city, a time, a culture now all gone.”

“Marginal” may be right. The adjective pops up again in The Rough Guide to Film, which covers top studio moguls and filmmakers by era, genre and region. It labels Eustache the least-known of the great New Wave filmmakers, outside France. Heck, even a self-confessed fan like Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, didn’t know all that much about him. Gondry said he thought of Eustache’s My Little Loves when he made Microbe and Gasoline (2015), and added, “[he] was one of the greatest filmmakers in France, but he made maybe three or four movies.” Actually, Eustache made only two narrative features: the two films mentioned thus far.

Jean Eustaches The Mother and the Whore is a time capsule of French youth post civil unrest of May 1968

A still from The Mother and the Whore

The Mother and the Whore, from 1973, is a three-hour-forty-minute meditation — in black and white — on men and women and relationships and the Zeitgeist of French youth post the civil unrest of May 1968. The protagonist is an unemployed youngster named Alexandre (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the poster-boy of the New Wave). The three women he is involved with to various degrees are all working women. Marie (Bernadette Lafont), Alexandre’s live-in girlfriend, runs a boutique. Alexandre’s ex, Gilberte, is a college lecturer. And the unabashedly promiscuous Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), whom Alexandre starts dating while he’s still with Marie, is a nurse.

The film (said to be largely autobiographical) is essentially a series of interactions between these characters, and it’s an intriguing mix of the real and the unreal: it juxtaposes a documentary style of shooting (static camera, long takes) with florid dialogue that often feels like monologues from long-ago theatre. The French critic Serge Daney (whose translated writings are available on the wonderful blog, Serge Daney in English) called the film an act of ethnology. “Without [Eustache and this film], we would have no face to set to the memory of the lost children of May ‘68: lost, already ageing, talkative and old-fashioned… Without [Eustache], nothing would have remained of them.”

And what is this “face”? Take the scene where Alexandre visits his friend. After a sip of a drink, he says: “I picked up a girl after I left you… She looked at me, or I wouldn’t have noticed her. I’m only interested if she’s already interested, even if it’s only shown in a glance. The same way I can’t love a woman who doesn’t love me. She smoked Gauloises. She wore a Moroccan robe, and no bra. She got up, I followed her. I was in a hurry, so I just asked for the number. She gave it to me… It's her work number, there’s an extension. She said to call between 8:00 and 3:00. I wonder what she does. I’d like to find out before I call.”

Alexandre delivers these lines non-stop, without a single interjection by the friend (as you’d expect in a “normal” conversation). Like a New Wave filmmaker, he keeps dropping directors’ names: Bresson, Nicholas Ray, Murnau. When Marie asks if there are any films worth going to, he reads out a newspaper synopsis of The Working Class Goes To Heaven, a 1971 drama by Elio Petri: “a political film, which denounces the workers’ oppressed condition whilst defining a new concept in human relations”. Much later, he muses about the end of cinema. “Soon, all this would be over, housing projects, cars, theatres… Maybe someone very old, really old, will still remember and tell the youths about movies, pictures that moved, and talked. And the young won’t understand.”

Jean Eustaches The Mother and the Whore is a time capsule of French youth post civil unrest of May 1968

A still from The Mother and the Whore

In short, unlike some other films of the New Wave, The Mother and the Whore probably works better if you are aware of the context. It’s still possible to see it as a series of conversations about this and that, but the through-line comes from the era the film depicts. The women are especially fascinating. Marie, who appears to have embraced the sexual revolution, doesn’t seem to mind that her boyfriend is seeing Veronika, whose sexual attitudes seem even more liberated, even though she doesn’t appear to have heard of “Women’s Lib” when Alexandre brings the topic up on their first date, before even asking what her name is. (When he explains what it is, she doesn’t seem impressed. “I like bringing a man I love breakfast in bed,” she says.)

On their second date, she talks about her affairs. “If I meet a guy, I go with him, there’s no problem. I can f*ck with anyone… Once, in the operating room, an intern said to me: ‘Veronika, There is a patient that needs to be undressed.’ So I take my kit and off I go. I was in the elevator, not paying attention, and I realise we’re not going there at all. It was his ploy to f*ck me. So I took out my Tampax, f*cked him and went on back to work.” And yet, she reveals a deeply conservative side in an affecting monologue that gives the film its title. She weeps, “I’ve been f*cked like a whore. But, you know, I think some day a man will come along and will love me, and will make me a baby, out of love… A couple that doesn’t want a baby is not a couple. It’s a shit, it’s anything, dust…”

The Cinema of France, edited by Phil Powrie, says that The Mother and the Whore created scandal and outrage at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, with “many critics accusing it of being immoral, obscene and, as the conservative broadsheet Le Figaro put it, ‘an insult to the nation’.” Today, of course, the film’s “transgressions” are hardly provocative, and what we are left with is a wonderful time capsule. A tragic one, too. The woman on whom Veronika was based killed herself after the premiere, and Eustache was apparently never the same again. About a decade later, he killed himself, too, leaving behind two lovely quotes about the art he chose for himself. “You have to record things; whether they’re pretty or not, they’re important.” “When the camera’s on, cinema is happening”

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date:

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

also read

Matthew McConaughey announces first memoir Greenlights, says it's his 'love letter to life'
Entertainment

Matthew McConaughey announces first memoir Greenlights, says it's his 'love letter to life'

Matthew McConaughey describes the memoir as "an album, a record, a story of my life so far."

Mulan bypasses theatrical release to premiere on Disney+ on 4 September, for $30 extra charge
Entertainment

Mulan bypasses theatrical release to premiere on Disney+ on 4 September, for $30 extra charge

Disney plans to release Mulan in theatres in areas only where Disney+ is not available.

Russell Crowe's Unhinged dominates UK, Ireland box office with a total of $229,000
Entertainment

Russell Crowe's Unhinged dominates UK, Ireland box office with a total of $229,000

Meanwhile, Disney holdover Onward has grossed a total of $7.4 million since it opened on 6 March