In May of 1968 students and workers throughout France (and other parts of Europe) went on strike and took to the streets in protest. Some were protesting student policy at their universities, others their working conditions, and others the war in Vietnam. Normal life in France ceased, as roads were blocked by police or protestors and general services like mail delivery and food shipments were interrupted. Workers occupied factories, demanding better wages. Life in Paris became a colorful exchange of impromptu political discussions, jam sessions, and artistic “happenings." Although the population was eventually coaxed back into their everyday routines before the month was out, what occurred during these few surreal weeks had a profound impact on the young generation just beginning their adult lives. They glimpsed a possibility of another way of life, a free-flowing existence without the artificial bureaucratic restraints of a consumer society. A world in which every voice mattered equally. And then, just as suddenly as it began, they witnessed that world’s evaporation and life resumed (almost) as if nothing had happened.
Five years later, Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973) was released. The movie, clocking in at 3 ½ hours, is about many things, not least of which is the hangover of '68 still being felt by many of the youth scrounging around Paris. Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Alexandre, a young layabout that reads in cafes during the day and lives off of the kindnesses of his older girlfriend Marie, played by Bernadette LaFont. Although they’re contemporaries, Alexandre is nothing like Léaud’s other on-screen persona Antoine Doinel, the working-class dreamer who at this point Léaud had reprised four times in Francois Truffaut’s films The 400 Blows (1959), Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed & Board (1970), along with the short Antoine & Colette (1962). While Antoine is industrious and immersed in contemporary life, Alexandre is a self-obsessed dandy, an aesthete who is nostalgic for times he’s never lived in and content to discuss endlessly the strange Parisian characters that populate his wanderings.
Everything in real life reminds Alexandre of something else: film, a novel, or story he's heard. Contemporary life baffles him. The young nurse he picks up in a cafe, Vernonika (played by Françoise Lebrun), is a wholly ’70s woman, self-possessed and frank about sex and relationships. This surprises Alexandre, who’s always trying to elicit some sense of romance out of Veronika during their early meetings. He’s just as hopeless with Marie, who tries to ensnare him in stale bourgeoise games of jealousy amongst their social set.
Encounters with Veronika (Françoise Lebrun) and Marie (Bernadette Lafont)
In the mist of juggling his relationships with these two women Alexandre eats, dreams, listens to music, runs into old friends at cafes. The film doesn’t have a story arc per-se, with plot developments that heighten the drama or a soundtrack of any kind beyond the music that Alexandre plays on the stereo. The film is Eustache’s attempt to boil down contemporary Parisian life to the very mundanities that make it up: deciding where to go for dinner, discussing opinions about how to spend one’s money, and petty arguments that hide larger conflicts. It’s about nothing much, and, everything. One soaks up Alexandre’s behavior to the point where we really get to know him and see his dilemma; he’s trapped in amber, at that fixed point of May 1968. It was the only moment in time where he felt truly in sync with the world and its inhabitants, and now that life has moved on without him he’s struggling to find meaning and make human connections.
Any English-speaking viewer of the film (as of this writing) will be seeing the film either on New Yorker's late 1990s VHS release or a digital copy of that edition. Eustache's sharply contrasted black and white photography is emphasized and decayed by these degradations of quality, resulting in a film that's sometimes little more than a dancing face in front of a white orbit. Figures in the background are blurred into grey swaths behind Alexandre as he inspects a cafe crowd for a familiar face, and Veronika’s features melt into the black of the night as she runs away from Alexandre in tears. Rather than hindering the watchability of the film this effect enhances the action, turning our workaday characters into chiaroscuro drawings, moving artworks that blend and twist in and out of frame.
In The Mother and the Whore, actions play out in real time. If Alexandre calls up Veronika, we hear every ring. If he puts on a record, we listen to the entire song. After a few hours of this slowed pace we see just how much other films disrespect these moments, seen as “filler” in a typical feature but to Eustache is the stuff of life, the important moments that serve as a standard by which emotions rise and fall. Eustache brings to the dialogue a detailed level of realism rarely found in movies, and you are given the sense that rather than watching a designed story with a known end we're merely running alongside these characters for a period of time. Their drama began before us and will continue after we've gone.
By 1973, the French New Wave had fizzled as many of the key players matured and went their separate ways artistically. By tracing a few months in the life of Alexandre and his dramas, or lack thereof, The Mother and the Whore achieves what the New Wave auteurs began attempting a decade earlier: liberate the film from the studio and its contrived plots, bring the action out into the streets, and explore the conflicts of contemporary men obsessed with art, culture, and politics. Eustache successfully delivered the purest New Wave film, a film which serves as an epitaph for the movement and a eulogy for that golden month when the world seemed to be on the brink of another, sweeter reality.