Naming our favorite directors made me think of Jean Eustache and his one-of-a-kind film THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1973). Until a few years ago, I was too put off by the title and the length (over three and a half hours) to seek it out. Although it will definitely not prove to everyone's taste, those who like it may like it a lot. Before seeing THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, however, you need to have seen Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel in one or more of Truffaut's films and also in Godard's MASCULINE FEMININE, and it helps to have seen Bernadette Lafont in either Chabrol's LE BEAU SERGE (1958) or LES BONNES FEMMES (1960).
I was won over from the beginning, when Alexandre (Leaud) leaves the bed of one woman to borrow a car from another woman to try to persuade yet a third woman to come back to him and not marry another man. The wit is as sly and dry as possible. Don't be afraid to find humor in the film, because it is definitely there. Alexandre, an ultimate slacker, lives with and off an older woman, Marie (Lafont). That doesn't stop him trying to seduce other women, such as a pretty nurse, Veronika (Francoise Lebrun). Lafont, who played the "girl who cain't say no" for Chabrol, has aged shockingly from 1960 to 1973 and is now the maternal figure. I'm pretty sure we're supposed to think of Alexander the Great in the name Alexandre, and quite sure that Marie is the madonna figure and that Veronika having a saint's name is not coincidental. His old girlfriend Gilberte may recall Marcel's childhood friend Gilberte in Proust.
When he isn't with a woman, Alexandre the Not-So-Great can be found in a cafe. He talks to his friend, another slacker, played by Jacques Renard, a brilliant comic actor who wipes Leaud off the screen when they're together. Alexandre does a lot of talking. The scene where he takes Veronika to dinner and talks about the kind of food he likes and why is hilarious, though he doesn't realize it. He and Veronika begin an affair. At one point he convinces the two women that the three of them should go to bed together, and they do. To watch this is almost the opposite of wish fulfillment, and we can see on Marie's face how much this costs her. A crisis in the triangle occurs, and the films ends with a change of circumstances. Will this be permanent? Alexandre doesn't change at all. Both women suffer.
The film enacts the death of the New Wave, with Eustache positioning his film to trash both the personal films of Truffaut and the political films of Godard. Leaud has the same good looks and shallow charm that he has in the Truffaut films, but Eustache makes all too clear that this is all there is. Nothing Alexandre says could possibly have merit or importance in a political context, and if Godard thinks otherwise about Leaud, so much the worse for Godard. Some have understood THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE to be a lament for lost possibilities in the brief and abortive May 1968 student uprisings in Paris, but I believe that those viewers are reading their own nostalgia into the film. Whatever this film is, it isn't nostalgic in any way. The key speech is carefully written: Alexandre remembers being in a cafe (where else?) and seeing the riots. He remembers the excitement at the time about the Black Panthers, the PLO, the Rolling Stones. Wait a minute: a rock group? That's the point, I think, that the Panthers and the PLO are rock groups like the Stones, suitable for posters on the student apartment wall.
THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE also fails to become a "Smart Women, Foolish Choices" movie. What do the women see in Alexandre? Good looks, shallow charm, a glib tongue. That's what he has to offer. Does either woman learn that she deserves better, that she's going to make it after all? Don't think so. This is what you wanted; this is what you got.
The film seems like it might have been improvised, but was in fact tightly scripted. So much for improvisation. I don't know if Eustache is aiming to trash improvised cinema in general, or perhaps Cassavetes in particular, because I don't know how important that kind of film was in France in 1973. It could certainly be taken that way.
Apparently the film is autobiographical, which raises yet another set of interesting questions. (The woman on whom Veronika is based is said to have killed herself.) There's no special pleading. There's no "How awful I am, aren't I fascinating?" There's no special claim to honesty. There's only the clarity of a Zen-like nihilism which is sly, dry, pervasive, and if you respond favorably to the film, exhilirating.
The most important thing is to enjoy your life - to be happy - it's all that matters.
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