Jean Eustache is not a name that’ll instantly pop up when you mention Nouvelle Vague Cinema, for he never got around to make enough of them, and also committed suicide aged forty two. Even the works he’d done – around a dozen or so, have rarely been seen outside France. Except his seminal masterpiece, “La maman et la putain” [Eng. Title: The Mother and the Whore], which was duly awarded at Cannes and Berlin, and is studied by film students worldwide ever since. Despite the film’s seemingly daunting three and a half hour runtime, it is not only one of the most absorbing and accomplished of cinematic works, but also an illuminating study of romantic relationships, that’s as relevant today as the time when it was made.
Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is an unemployed twenty-something pseudo intellectual who talks a lot but doesn’t say much. Since being dumped by girlfriend Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), he’s been living with Marie (Bernadette Lafont) – an attractive thirty something divorcee running a garment boutique. She lets him stay at her flat, and also gives him occasional pocket money – they are lovers, and in an ‘open’ relationship that certainly suits Alexandre more than it does Marie, for he now has the freedom to sleep around with whoever he chooses and yet have someone looking after him. Marie on the other hand, tolerates his promiscuity but truly loves him.
Their relationship is tested when Alexandre meets and starts dating attractive young blonde Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), a nurse even more promiscuous than him. Not only does he inform Marie of his new ‘conquest’, but also uses the flat in her absence for his extended sex sessions. Veronika knows that Alexandre depends on Marie, but that doesn’t seem to trouble her as much. One night, a drunk Veronika invites herself into Marie’s flat when she’s with Alexandre, and from then on, an uneasy ménage à trois is established that Alexandre wouldn’t quite know how to deal with – for it sparks jealousy from one among the three every time they’re together. He will soon be forced to choose between the two women who love him, and become a proper adult, against his will…
The above rudimentary outline barely does justice to what the film is about. It has no real plot, but analyses and eloquently conveys themes that would normally require several films to accomplish. It is achieved through Eustache’s meticulous observations with a documentary eye, shot in series of real-time conversations and monologues that’ll feature Alexandre and one or more of the central characters. The title refers to the collision between two simplified needs of a man – the caring and nurturing mother figure – in this instance Marie, and the erotic pleasures derived through a whore – which Veronika openly admits to being, as far as her sexual needs are concerned.
The film is faultless in every respect – right from the exemplary performances, to the exquisite screenplay and characterisation. And the ending, which shows Alexandre slump to the floor during the final scene, is a master stroke of genius. Exceptionally directed and edited, it is a shining, perhaps even seminal, example of the French New Wave, and therefore Highly Recommended Viewing..!
This gem has never been digitally remastered for DVD, and the only version currently available is a letter-boxed NTSC edition from Japan that I can’t recommend, particularly to users of this blog for an obvious reason – the Japanese penchant for blurring certain parts of the anatomy. 🙂
The Nudity: Bernadette Lafont, Françoise Lebrun, and an uncredited actress
Reviewed from an uncensored HDTV-rip (even though I own a copy of the Japanese original), the film features several scenes of partial and frontal nudity from the lovely Bernadette Lafont, and brief nudity from the elegant Françoise Lebrun who’s a former girlfriend of director Eustache. An uncredited actress also appears nude in pantihose, during a scene when she tries on a dress at Marie’s boutique, gawked by Alexandre.