The mother and the whore

eustacheI am watching ‘La maman et la putain’, I think for the third or fourth time. I don’t want to say it’s a ‘great’ film, because the only sure meaning of great is big: I prefer to say it’s a true film.

It’s the story of lost souls. Should there be an afterlife it will have a heaven and a hell, but it will also have a city of lost souls. And, you know, heaven will be sparsely populated, hell will be almost empty (the ultimate punishment) but the city of lost souls will be crowded, that’s where most of us will be (already are?).

The film tells of some almost meaningless events in the life of three characters who, by chance, have interacted with each other in the Paris of the 1970s. They’ve all long since ceased to ask for meaning, even the delusional meaning of love. The film starts and ends with a proposal of marriage, and both proposals are robbed of their conventional purpose, standing for something else entirely which it takes the whole film to explain. Two women, Veronika and Marie, have the defense of sex; the man, Alexandre, has the defense of rhetoric. A woman’s rhetoric turns sex into love: a man’s emotional needs turn despair into philosophy. In an amusing scene towards the middle of the film the men see Sartre in a café and theorise his philosophy is devised to obscure the fact he’s a drunkard.

Jean Eustache, one of cinema’s most extraordinary film makers, was neglected in his lifetime. He was too extraordinary. In a moment of frustration, after being immobilised for months following an accident, he took his own life, long before he could realise his promise of being a major film maker. And so he became one of his own characters, like the girl with the bandaged hand who has murdered her lover, a pretended priest, and complains to Alexandre of the jealousy of her current lover.

‘The mother and the whore’ might seem a feminist’s point of view on the roles men assign to women (you know them: virgin, mother, whore, sybil). What woman doesn’t feel frustrated with the choice when she’s, damn it, only a woman and just like a man she only wants someone to love. But the three main characters, and many of the minor ones, are painted warts and all. The film is broader in scope than feminism, for it embraces despair. This is a condition far more prevalent in men.

For anyone who has watched Jean-Pierre Leaud in the charming and utterly frivolous films of François Truffaut (who was the author of the unrealistic ‘auteur’ theory of film making), his performance in this film is a revelation. Here is exactly the same persona, the same mannerisms, given a touch of profundity by a kind of existential honesty quite foreign to Truffaut. Perhaps stardom helped Leaud to reach this state, this elevation of the image and neglect of its content. Bernadette Lafont has a number of great roles in her repertoire; she gives a powerful performance. The surprise is Françoise Lebrun, playing Veronika. Lebrun hadn’t acted before; her performance has to be seen to be believed. The magician here is surely Eustache. His script and his direction must have touched something deep within his actors. The film pulls no punches; it is an honest film. And who isn’t disturbed and frightened by honesty?

The story is that events and anecdote in the film come straight from Eustache’s life. He had an affair with Lebrun, who left him. He wanted to tell this story, with Lebrun and Leaud in the parts. He said that without their involvement the film would not have been made. Every inconsequential happening and statement in the film is based on fact. This is the source of its achievement and yet completely irrelevant.

What is relevant is that this story of people who have lost something important and can’t remember what it is can mean something to all of us in the same sorry state. After all, a world without meaning can be endured, with the help of sex, alcohol, television, the internet. Merely to depict this state would be only sentimental. Eustache does more. Just as Gilgamesh battled death futilely yet achieved immortality, ‘The mother and the whore’ shows us that confronting despair with honesty gives hope. The characters in the film don’t feel this: the viewers do.

Eustache was a documentary film maker, as Kieslowski was, and the Kieslowski of ‘Dekalog’ is a useful comparison. Where Kieslowski looks at the morality of despair, how to function honestly in a life where we don’t know the rules of the game, Eustache in this film is taking things a step further, looking at how we behave when we lose our faith. After all, most causes are subverted. Alexandre has seen the student movement of ’68 fizzle out, a devastating blow to him, and his generation. He’s seen the Black Panther movement become just a news story (people just a few years ago would have seen the same thing happen with punk, hip-hop, rap).

Veronika has a speech towards the end of ‘The mother and the whore’ that viewers are not likely to forget. Sex is how she gets by, and all the accumulated resentment she has comes forth in a tirade that has the bitter pathos of a little girl in a tantrum explaining why she wants an ice cream NOW.

Three and a half hours of epigrammatic French conversation in black and white photography might sound as stimulating to most as internet pornography. The only suggestion I can make is that you pay attention to what the characters do NOT say. And you can only do this by referring the spoken and unspoken conversation to your own life. As Samuel Becket makes one of his characters say: “I can’t go on: I must go on”. None of us has any choice at all. Our free will consists only of accepting or ignoring this.

A very moving love story, magnificently acted and directed with power and great originality. The story of a man who can only love the shattered mirror images of a woman and who has no idea of the reflection’s original. And a story, rare in cinema, of the painful process of living. I would rate it as a masterpiece.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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