“In all my films, there is a suicide,” the French director Jean Eustache claimed upon discovering that his former girlfriend had killed herself shortly after attending a private screening of a rough cut of his film La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973). Eustache had transposed some of their lovers’ conversations into the script for his three-and-a-half-hour portrait of their fractious relationship, using tapes he had made with a recorder hidden under their bed. The young woman had worked on the film’s shoot as a costumer and makeup artist and offered her shop and apartment as sets, so she was aware of its scabrous real-life revelations, but its full emotional effect seemed to register only after she witnessed her character, the eponymous “mother,” recreated on-screen with such arrant fidelity. She wept throughout the screening, then left a note—“The film is sublime, leave it as it is”—before downing a bottle of barbiturates.
None of Eustache’s fourteen films portrays a suicide—the single thwarted attempt in La Maman et la putain eerily predicts the actual one that followed—so his statement about its ubiquity in his work must be taken as either hyperbole or metaphor. Eustache was prone to the former but immune to the latter, and largely avoided the figurative in his search for authenticity. His realism was vehement even at its most lyrical, in the service of examining his ravaged life with merciless accuracy. “The films I made are as autobiographical as fiction can be,” he claimed, and his confessional autoportraits—particularly La Maman et la putain, which he initially celebrated as a “heartbreaking and funny self-analysis” and later complained was too intimate—often contradict one of his aesthetic dictums: “One must respect what one films.” Only Eustache’s friend and fellow cineaste and autodidact Maurice Pialat equaled his determination to employ the cinema to harrow a self he constantly reproached and sometimes despised. Both admired Céline, whose poverty and rage they identified with, but Eustache’s anger at his own misfortune was sublimated into shame and humiliation.
Born in 1938 to a working-class family in the town of Pessac, just south of Bordeaux, Eustache lived with his grandmother after his parents separated. In his portrait of his adolescent years, Mes petites amoureuses (My Little Loves, 1974), in which he determined “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole,” he recounts being removed from his grandmother’s calm, nurturing home at the age of twelve or thirteen by his erratic mother, who took him to Narbonne, near the Mediterranean. He slept on the floor of a small, squalid apartment, where, if the film is accurate, she worked as a part-time seamstress when not smoking in silence with her lover, a gaunt, exhausted farmhand. His mother, pleading poverty, prevented Eustache from returning to school and pressed him into unpaid work in a bicycle repair shop, probably to repay a family debt.
Anguished by his lack of learning, Eustache received an unsentimental education in the streets of Narbonne, acquiring the ways of amorous subterfuge and sexual duplicity by observing trysts outside the bike shop and spending his spare time at the local cinema or at a roughneck bar, where he collected tips on how to pursue women. (In Mes petites amoureuses, a swell given to peppermint liqueur and dapper suits teaches the boy to wear a cigarette lighter on a chain around his neck, the better to draw la femme to the flame.) He read voraciously, later memorizing passages of Beckett and Flaubert, and like many autodidacts flaunted his hard-won knowledge, lifting the title of Mes petites amoureuses from Rimbaud and littering his films with literary and cinematic references: Proust, Borges, Chaplin, Bresson, Genet, Hawks, Renoir, Murnau, Mizoguchi, Vigo, Ray, McCarey, Bernanos, Guitry, Lewin, Leone.
When Eustache finally moved to Paris in the late 1950s, having avoided conscription into the Algerian War by slitting his wrists and enduring shock therapy in a psychiatric hospital, he worked for the national railroad and hawked pirated copies of Georges Bataille’s then-banned L’Histoire de l’oeil for supplemental income. Luc Béraud’s generous, witty account of his years as the director’s assistant, Au travail avec Eustache (making of), describes how Eustache’s arrival in the city’s cinephile circles was treated as a proletarian incursion from the provinces. The young outsider’s delicate, “lilting southwestern accent never left him,” nor did his many verbal tics, further marginalizing him among the insular cadre of critics and New Wave directors. Opportunely, Eustache’s wife became a secretary at Cahiers du cinéma, the second headquarters of the French New Wave after the Cinémathèque Française, allowing the aspiring filmmaker frequent visits to the office under the guise of marital duty. “I could not become a writer, painter, or musician,” he assured his friends, and his assiduousness in pursuing a career in cinema eventually paid off in 1963 when he was able to make his first short film, Du côté de Robinson (Robinson’s Place).
Eustache’s debut, inspired by Éric Rohmer’s earliest films and shot in the streets, cafés, and shabby dancehalls of Paris, introduces the first of his repellent male characters. Two arrogant layabouts take a break from playing pinball—by then a New Wave convention—to accompany a young woman they accost in the street to a Montmartre ballroom. She quickly tires of their egotism and takes up with other men, whereupon the two take revenge by stealing her wallet, despite knowing that she is separated from her husband, has two children, and has been living an indigent existence. The film’s initial exuberance cedes to Célinian sadism—the two regret not seeing the woman’s face when she discovers the theft—and self-recrimination, pointing the way to the desolation of La Maman et la putain almost a decade later.
The acclaim for Robinson resulted in a coup for Eustache’s next film, Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, 1966). Jean-Luc Godard furnished the young director with leftover stock from his own film Masculin feminin and funded some of the post-production, and he may have convinced its star, Jean-Pierre Léaud, to play Daniel, Eustache’s provincial protagonist. (Eustache later appeared as a hitchhiker in Godard’s Week-end.)
Returning to Narbonne, which he regarded with affection despite his unhappy years there, Eustache shot his comedy about poverty, sartorial aspiration, and the art of disguise over the Christmas holidays, taking documentary advantage of the seasonal decorations, which doubtless influenced Rohmer’s similar approach in his portrayal of yuletide Clermont-Ferrand in Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969). Unemployed and determined to purchase a duffle coat—a fashion imperative for young men—Daniel takes a job as Santa Claus and soon discovers that his costume allows him intimate contact with young women who previously snubbed him. Eustache recognized that the seemingly exuberant musicals of Jacques Demy were shadowed by dissolution and despair, and his own attempt to maintain a tone of genial comedy in Père Noël inevitably arrives at a melancholic impasse, with vacant streets on Christmas Eve and Daniel’s desperation to “put himself on the level of others, which,” Eustache insisted, “is bound to fail.”
In Père Noël one finds the first expression of the director’s conspicuous concern with clothing and self-presentation, which emerged in his impoverished adolescence—in Mes petites amoureuses, the boy parades a pair of home-tailored pants that he promptly scorches with a cigarette—and intensified in his frequently penniless adulthood. Eustache fashioned himself as a dandy, a term that took on new meaning in the early 1970s, with the flamboyant tradition of Baudelaire increasingly tinged with post-1968 nihilism and dejection. Eustache’s copiously coiffed alter ego in La Maman et la putain wears two ostentatious silk foulards simultaneously, sports a set of dark shades indoors, and begs a girlfriend to bring home from London an elegant pin-striped flannel suit like Mick Jagger’s, his couture exceeded only by his loquacity.
This summer’s traveling retrospective of Eustache’s films, all in recent restorations, includes the documentaries he made in the southern French provinces, in which he turned from New Wave–ish urban fiction to regionalist nonfiction, the ethnologist apparent in his first two films emerging more forcefully in his rigorous depictions of local rites. He returned to his hometown in 1968 to make the hour-long La Rosière de Pessac (The Virgin of Pessac), shot quickly on a shoestring budget. With the permission of the town’s mayor, who came to love the film despite its candid portrait of his pontifications and many faux pas, Eustache captured the traditional civic ritual in which the most virtuous young woman in Pessac—the eponymous virgin—is elected for a year’s term. The film’s rustic comedy, reminiscent at times of the work of Marcel Pagnol, the Provençal director whose populist romances Eustache cherished, made it such a success with the French public that Eustache returned to the same subject eleven years later in a matching hour-long documentary, this time in color, and showed that in this unhurried rural setting ten years can prove an eternity, or no time at all.
In an anomalous collaboration, Eustache invited a friend, Jean-Michel Barjol, to codirect a documentary about the slaughter and processing of a hog on a farm in the southern Massif Central. Each director hired his own crew and shot, often simultaneously and in sight of each other, the single day’s labor of five farmers who kill, wash, shave, decapitate, skin, and gut the animal that gives the film its blunt title, Le Cochon (The Pig, 1970). Less cinema verité—a description Eustache rejected—than a quasi-liturgical record of an ancient ritual, Le Cochon is so methodical in its observation that it could safely be categorized as anthropological cinema or industrial film.
Eustache claimed that during editing the directors selected footage that amounted to an even split between the two teams, which seems unaccountable given how uniform the aesthetic approach remains throughout, especially its emphasis on a soundtrack in which the screams of the animal, a volley of steaming blood into a pail, and blades scraping across the carcass merge with the farmers’ muttering patois, which is mostly so undecipherable even to the French that the film has never been subtitled. (It’s the rare Eustache work in which language is not paramount.)
Eustache’s concern for traditional rituals was part of his general reverence for the past, both cultural—pre-war chansons, classic cinema, canonical literature—and, it would seem, social. Critics have long debated whether his nostalgia shaded into outright reaction. As Béraud notes, the director frequently assumed provocative aesthetic and ethical positions, leaving acquaintances uncertain whether he was sincere or inciting. The figure who most thoroughly embodies him, Alexandre in La Maman et la putain, pines for a past in which women swooned over the prestige of the military uniform, mocks women’s lib, and disdains many other aspects of modern life, even as he takes full advantage of its sexual freedom. Whether Alexandre’s confession that he once severely beat the woman he intended to marry is factual or inflammatory remains undetermined.
Like Pier Paolo Pasolini, with whom he had much in common, including the paradoxical view of the rebel as reactionary, Eustache longed for the prelapsarian world he first knew, that of his grandmother’s house and the countryside around Pessac, with its arcadian culture and distinctive idioms. In 1971, feeling “eaten up with suffering,” he returned to this past by interviewing his grandmother, Odette Robert, using two cameras working in relay and shooting in long, unedited, stationary takes relieved by the occasional zoom shot. Robert initially demurred when her grandson proposed the film, insisting that the details of her life were not “nice”—a philandering husband charged with indecency with a thirteen-year-old girl, the loss of her three sons to childhood diseases, and her growing blindness. Smoking incessantly and sipping whiskey, the old woman obsesses on her childhood, which, as in a fairy tale, turned from a paradise into a domestic hell when her mother died and her father remarried.
Eustache called the resulting film Numéro zéro, then withheld it for many years, allowing only a select few, including the director Jean-Marie Straub, to see it. (He did prepare a severely abbreviated version for French television.) Contrary to Eustache’s negative opinion of Zéro, the overly generous Straub pronounced it “one of the greatest films about the history of France, as great as Renoir’s La Marseillaise.”
Eustache is on-screen throughout Odette’s rapid recitation, imbibing tumblers of Ballantine’s, an indication of his escalating alcoholism. Philippe Azoury makes little of the director’s addiction in Jean Eustache: Un amour si grand…, his long-anticipated and definitive study of Eustache’s career, unlike Béraud, who witnessed its devastating effects on the set and off. Eustache jokingly accorded a screen credit to Jack Daniel as “technical adviser” in Mes petites amoureuses, had cases of the whiskey shipped from Paris when he discovered it was unavailable in his southern hometowns, and often directed scenes or edited footage while clutching a bottle in a paper bag. Charming and gracious when sober, he could become volatile and eruptive when inebriated, which was often. (Béraud claims that Eustache, like another infamously hard-drinking director, the Korean Hong Sang-soo, insisted on using real liquor for the drinking scenes in his films.) The director’s assistants grew accustomed to a sodden Eustache crying, “Well then, the film is done for!” if confronted with any obstacle, such as when the management of Le Train Bleu, the majestic, frescoed restaurant at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, initially denied him the right to film a crucial sequence in La Maman et la putain there. The manager informed Eustache’s assistant that “Orson Welles, John Huston, and George Cukor wanted to shoot here and were refused authorization. So, you see, your monsieur Eustache with his film in black and white…”
La Maman et la putain depicts, at tremendous length and with relentless intensity, the disillusion in the aftermath of May 1968; Azoury writes that “we approach [the film] as if heading to a massacre.” Both the apotheosis and the death knell of the French New Wave, it elicited superlatives commensurate with its immensity and influence, celebrated as “simply the most beautiful French film of the 70s, the most heartbreaking and most ‘literary,’ too” (Olivier Père) or “the most beautiful film in the world” (Azoury), and reviled as “the most misogynist film imaginable” (Jean-Louis Bory). On any scale, La Maman ranks highest in directorial self-excoriation; not even Pialat’s contemporaneous Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together, 1972) so thoroughly castigates its maker. Before La Maman et la putain was released, Eustache called it “the only one of my films that I hate, because it sends me back too much to myself, to a self that is too present. The past in my other films protects me.”
Jean-Pierre Léaud returned to Eustache’s cinema as Alexandre, the director’s surrogate, in La Maman et la putain, as if the boy from Père Noël had moved from the provinces to Paris and transformed himself into an aphoristic dandy and narcissistic libertine, graduating from duffle coat to boulevardier finery. In the opening sequence, Alexandre leaves the bed of his older girlfriend, Marie (Bernadette Lafont), to convince another paramour, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten)—her name the first of the film’s many Proust allusions—to marry him. Rejected despite his flights of rhetorical entreaty—Alexandre’s voluble monologues owe something to the teeming texts of Sacha Guitry, whom Eustache so admired that he once claimed to share Guitry’s royalist convictions—he begins an affair with a third woman, Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), a Polish nurse with an insatiable taste for liquor and sex. Sepulchral in a black shawl and tightly braided hair, Veronika stanches her despair with a succession of affairs, until Alexandre employs his epigrammatic wit and Marie’s money—he’s unemployed by antibourgeois principle—to make her his second lover in a ménage with Marie and, finally, his wife. (That La Maman begins and ends with a marriage proposal suggests how precisely scripted it is, despite the film’s improvisatory appearance.)
Though resembling a New Wave film in its many overt cinematic and literary homages and in its 16mm graininess, the black-and-white images occasionally overexposed or underlit, La Maman et la putain is more classically edited and tightly structured than many of its New Wave predecessors, and seems another of Eustache’s tributes to cultural tradition, especially silent cinema. “My goal is to return to Lumière,” he said, his determination apparent in the film’s reliance on the slow fade as its principal edit and in Veronika’s ashen visage and dark eye makeup, rather like a latter-day Musidora, who appeared in Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires and Judex. Veronika’s mascara runs to mud near the end of the film when, in a protracted, weepy close-up, she delivers what many take to be Eustache’s reactionary critique of sexual liberation, calling her promiscuous life rotten and sordid and exalting marriage and motherhood as enduring ideals.
If, as Alexandre suggests, “films teach you how to live,” La Maman et la putain does much the opposite. Aware that Eustache frequently reread Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan, French critics have discerned a strong current of Célinian anarchism in Alexandre’s derisive mocking of the ideals and cultural artifacts of May 1968 and in his consorting with a Nazi-fixated friend who decries Jean-Paul Sartre as a drunk whose leftist politics share the color of his favorite wine. (Lebrun claims that the “crude language” of the film, in which the word baiser—fuck—appears over a hundred times, derived from Céline’s feverish obscenities.) Despite its unfashionable revanchism, the film quickly became the cardinal document of its disconsolate era, its final, abrupt image of Alexandre slumping to the floor in alarmed disbelief after a nauseous, intoxicated Veronika agrees to marriage emblematic of a social utopia that Eustache appears to think did not fail, but never was.
The immense success of La Maman et la putain eventually became a burden to Eustache but made it possible for him to achieve a long-cherished project, the autobiographical Mes petites amoureuses. Returning to southern France to recreate his youthful years of solitude and indenture, Eustache wept when he discovered that some of his childhood haunts remained in Narbonne. He had wanted Pierre Lhomme, the cinematographer on La Maman et la putain, to return, but settled for the Spaniard Néstor Almendros, who brought to the film the radiant pastoralism he had recently perfected in Rohmer’s Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970) and François Truffaut’s Les Deux Anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls, 1971).
With a larger budget, Amoureuses was shot in color and 35mm, the director and cinematographer collaborating on the film’s lighting: soft and natural in the opening sequences set in Pessac to capture Eustache’s childhood with his affectionate grandmother, harsher when he arrives in the Midi to begin a purgatorial existence with his mother and her taciturn lover. The fades that Eustache employed to great effect in La Maman et la putain worked less well in color, however, often impeding the clipped rhythms of the film. (Eustache never abandoned the squarish image—what is known as 1.37 aspect ratio—inherited from the earliest cinema, even after widescreen became the norm, and adhered to black and white far longer than most directors.)
The marked influence of Robert Bresson, variously apparent in La Maman, verges on reverent imitation in Amoureuses. Almendros’s camera, for instance, remains fixed on a setting a beat or two after the actors have vacated the frame, and each sequence feels roughly uniform in duration. Intent upon an acting style similar to the studied neutrality of Bresson’s casts, Eustache chose Martin Loeb, a nonprofessional in delicate health, to play the adolescent Daniel over his own young son, Boris, and trained him in the inward ways of Bresson’s so-called models. Reticent where La Maman is word-drunk, Amoureuses relies on Loeb’s voice-overs to reveal his inner world, his dispassionate diction recalling the narration of Bresson’s country priest, just as the boy’s hesitant gait recollects the stylized comportment of Bresson’s young men. Loeb confided that Eustache calculated his every “gesture to the last centimeter.”
Despite the prevailing austerity, Eustache could not resist several New Wave devices and homages: an iris shot of an older woman whom Daniel desires; a scene from Albert Lewin’s delirious Technicolor fantasy Pandora and the Flying Dutchman; a poster for Pagnol’s Angèle; a billboard that reads “Film Lumière”; a cameo appearance by Pialat, whose masterpiece, L’Enfance nue, was an obvious model for Eustache’s film; and, most startling, a repeated dolly shot alongside the tables outside a café occupied by young male idlers, perhaps a salute to Pasolini’s first feature, Accattone.
Like Pasolini, Eustache populated his casts with family, friends, and the occasional culturati. To play Daniel’s stepfather, a desolate émigré Spaniard, he selected Dionys Mascolo, a left-wing activist, literary editor, and former husband of Marguerite Duras. Unfortunately, after Jeanne Moreau turned down the role of Daniel’s errant mother, Eustache paired Mascolo—whose lean, depleted mien was ideal for his laconic character—with an actress of surpassing artifice, Ingrid Caven. According to Béraud, the director chose her after seeing one of her more mannered performances, in Daniel Schmid’s operatic La Paloma (1974), and though she was unsure that she could play a French peasant, Eustache traveled to her home to convince her, abetted by her longtime director and ex-husband, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who admired La Maman et la putain. In Eustache’s naturalistic setting, Caven’s waxen pallor, frowsy crown of cotton-candy curls, and breathy affectations seem imported from some alien world of Germanic kitsch and cabaret.
In an act of self-sabotage, Eustache expelled a writer whose review of La Maman et la putain had wounded him from the press screening of Mes petites amoureuses. Appalled, the other critics exited with their colleague and then withheld their reviews. Eustache’s career never seemed to recover, and his remaining works are fragmentary, though Une sale histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977), in which he filmed his friend and lookalike Jean-Noël Picq recounting his experience as an obsessive voyeur after discovering a hole in the door of a women’s washroom in a Parisian café, achieves a seedy salon-style formalism. (Gaspar Noé, superannuated bad boy of contemporary French cinema, adores the film, and Azoury concocts a rather convoluted phrase of admiration: “It is not impossible that it is Eustache’s other masterpiece.”) Indulging his propensity for the diptych form, Eustache then recreated the same storytelling session as fiction, with the urbane actor Michael Lonsdale as raconteur, and released the twice-told tale as a single set. An inquiry into the contrasting effects of the documentary and fictional modes and the place of performance in each, Histoire belatedly attempts to recapture the scandal of La Maman et la putain, whose script at one point had incorporated Picq’s scurrilous story.
Having suffered a severe leg injury during a holiday in Greece in 1981 that left him in constant pain and walking with a cane, Eustache spent his final months as a bedridden, bearded recluse, issuing tirades over the phone and rewatching his favorite films on television. Before killing himself with a bullet to the heart a few weeks short of his forty-third birthday—which Azoury hints may have been in imitation of the suicide of the Dadaist Jacques Rigaut, whom Eustache venerated—he posted a note on his apartment door for the colleague who was to transport him to a film class the next morning: “Knock hard, as if to wake the dead.”