Milestone Movies: The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Relationships still feel like this, 40 years on…

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

The French New Wave probably had the biggest influence of any innovation in film since the advent of sound. A loose movement of French films and directors from circa 1959 to 1974, the Nouvelle Vague changed the rules surrounding the way that audiences and filmmakers view concepts like narrative, acting, film language and filmic criticism – and it did it so comprehensively, we would be almost unable to conceive of contemporary cinema without it.

It has been just over fifty years since the Nouvelle Vague first started gaining popular resonance, following the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s gangster-cum-romance film A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). Initially, the movement was split into two loose camps of film directors. First, the Left Bank filmmakers, who were older and already well-established in the Parisian art scene – namely, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Jacques Demy. Secondly, there were the directors who had started getting into film by writing for the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma – Godard, François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer.

These two strands made some of the most revolutionary films in movie history, and the films gained considerable influence among young generations of film fans. In fact, the movement was critical in promoting film as an art form which can be analysed and broken down – and without it, film schools, film criticism and films themselves would be entirely different. The Nouvelle Vague itself however, is considered to have slowly died following the student protests and heavy state reprisals of May 1968 in France, and many of the key filmmakers either defected, or created lesser work.

At least, that’s how the conventional story goes. While later filmmakers like say, Jean Eustache, Phillipe Garrel, or Maurice Pialat are considered part of the Nouvelle Vague stable, this later work remains neglected and under-appreciated. In particular, a masterpiece like Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore) is not available on DVD in any release with English subtitles*, and few film histories regard this film as more than a footnote. Much the same fate has befallen Pialat’s La Gueule ouverte, a film made around the same time as Eustache’s, and another one to add to the list of seminal films criminally ignored). Ironically, these films now resonate more deeply than the celebrated earlier ones.

The Nouvelle Vague changed the focus of film criticism towards directors, and towards directors considered as “auteurs”. The film critics of Cahiers du Cinéma championed film-makers who they claimed had an authorial signature, even though conditions (such as Hollywood production lines or social climates) weren’t conducive to artistic statements. They argued in favour of directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Jean Renoir – directors who they said left a personal imprint in all their films.

Critics such as Godard, Truffaut and Claude Chabrol then set about putting these ideas into practice. A film like A Bout de Souffle demolished the rules for narrative. It was seemingly filmed on the run with handheld and mobile cameras, and with the storyline being interrupted halfway through for a lengthy real-time sequence of the two protagonists talking, something that previous film theory would have judged to be a time-wasting distraction. It was also full of homages, jagged editing (jump cuts, temporal ambiguity) and a constant shift between genres. Film had rarely, if ever, seen anything like it before. Francois Truffaut’s film, Les Quatres Cent Coups (The 400 Blows) ushered in personal filmmaking, in which film became autobiography, unashamedly personal and less focused on genre.

These films co-existed with many of the other masterpieces of the Nouvelle Vague such as Agnes Varda’s ‘real-time’ film Cléo de 5 à 7, Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Even so, this uncredible momentum was not sustained, and for several reasons, the movement stalled, its energy seemingly spent.

The first reason was that the novelty had waned – things only seem fresh for a particular period. Countries from all over the world had begun adopting Nouvelle Vague techniques, from Senegal to Japan. Secondly, the filmmakers themselves lost interest, or lost quality – Jean-Luc Godard disappeared first into Marxist filmmaking, and then to a self-imposed exile (some might say, into his own arse); Truffaut lost his touch, and scores of other directors came and went. Thirdly, the audiences lost interest. The Nouvelle Vague films were never all that commercially successful, despite their later significance in shaping Hollywood’s new generation in the 1970s. Fourthly, France went into upheaval with the student protests, and the failure of the counter-culture movements signalled the end of the art which had predicted the generational chaos.

However, it is fair to say that France, which has always been at the forefront of art film, never stopped making great films, even after these original figures lost their momentum. Arguably, the best films of the Nouvelle Vague came afterwards, when the movement was seen to be entering its hangover period. In particular Jean Eustache’s 1973 film La Maman et La Putain, a film which was reviled by critics at Cannes (despite winning the Jury Prize) and criticised as obscene for its language – and since then, it has rarely gained the critical praise that it deserves.

Part of the reason for this is that the earlier Nouvelle Vague films gained resonance with the new breed of American directors who later conquered Hollywood, and audiences worldwide : the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas went on to specifically champion Godard and Truffaut, while the later films had no such champions. Further, the later films were too downbeat, lacking the anarchy which typified Godard’s work, or the narrative simplicity of Truffaut.

The reputation of Jean Eustache (pictured left) has barely survived his suicide in 1981 – after being partly paralysed in a car accident, he killed himself soon afterwards, just before his 43rd birthday. He made two features, appeared in Godard’s Week-End and wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma. However, part of this obscurity comes from the fact that his masterpiece, La Maman et la Putain clocks in at over three and a half hours, and is mainly composed of two or three people talking, in various rooms and cafes. Few films though, carry such a magnetic charge, and carry out such a thorough dissection of relationships.

The dialogue sounds improvised. In fact it was composed of real-life dialogue from Eustache’s own relationships and conversations overheard by him in cafes – and in this respect, gets as close to confession as film allows. It was also highly artificial. It was edited for months, in an effort to capture the natural rhythms of real life. As Pauline Kael once said of this film : “ It took three months of editing to make it look unedited.” Eustache had made a number of documentary shorts, so was well versed in trying to construct ‘real-life’. However in this film, he uses actors to re-enact and re-create aspects of his own life, a kind of realism that is at once convincingly ethnographic, but also highly nuanced. Alexandre for instance may argue narcissistically that women cannot and do not want to be independent – yet as several critics have noted, it is he who is emotionally and financially dependent on the three emotionally and financially independent women in his life – Marie, Veronika and Gilberte.

The film stars two of the Nouvelle Vague’s stars – Jean-Pierre Léaud as Alexandre, who in particular was Truffaut’s key actor, and Bernadette Lafont as Alexandre’s live-in partner and financial support Marie. Lafont acted in key films by Chabrol and Nelly Kaplan. The third protagonist in a resulting ménage à trois is Veronika, who is played by Eustache’s real ex-girlfriend Françoise Lebrun. Both Eustache and the real life character that Lafont plays committed suicide in the film’s aftermath – she shortly afterwards, he nearly ten years later, which now adds a further dimension of darkness. By using two of the Nouvelle Vague’s key leads who had grown up on screen with the Nouvelle Vague, Eustache linked the characters’ personal destruction to the Nouvelle Vague itself. [Even so, it also has to be said that much of Alexandre’s dialogue is highly amusing, especially when he is rationalising his own self serving romantic behaviour. No other film captures the French love of talking and delight in verbal daring as fully and as beautifully as this.]

The film’s influence can now clearly be seen in how relationships are dissected in contemporary French cinema – by Catherine Breillat and Olivier Assayas – and by Korean directors like Hong Sang-soo or in the work of Jim Jarmusch. It entails a dissection of relationships, the ideals of marriage and monogamy, and self-obsessed values – among the middle class, and the young who are ostensibly rebelling against them. Quite explicitly, the film renounces the so-called liberated ‘60s – jealousy, masochism, narcissism, and people settling for second best seem to typify relationships, even during the time of supposed sexual freedom and feminism. (This is underlined by Alexandre’s insistence in carrying La Prisonnière around, Proust’s book about obsessive love and mutual incomprehension seems to define this film’s view of relationships – suggesting nothing has changed too much from fin de siècle France).

Its depiction of a failed gender equality has led to the film being labelled reactionary – (The film begins and ends with Alexandre proposing marriage – once as a ridiculous flight of fancy that he knows will not be accepted, and the second as a desperate attempt to hold onto something.) Eustache though, is more concerned about the failure of idealism, and in expressing his cynicism about how the ‘old ways’ still infect the supposedly enlightened. It’s a remarkably bleak (but realistic) depiction of male-female relationships delivered in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s hopes for political and sexual liberation – yet it is one that still resonates nearly forty years on, since so few of the power structures and gender norms have really changed all that much. The American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once called this film a Rip Van Winkle dream in which we are all still trapped. Nothing works – not even and especially, our most intimate relationships.

The film is also formally innovative. From its direct to camera monologue (which bears more than a striking narrative resemblance to Molly Bloom’s monologue in James Joyce’s Ulysses), to the static camera shots which initially appear purely functional but which cumulatively add an austerity that one wouldn’t believe could possibly be sustained in a three and a half hour film – to the absence of obvious plot points in the film’s narrative, to the final hurrah of icy black and white images (at least as far as the Nouvelle Vague was concerned).

Few films are as ‘talky’ as this, and given the function of dialogue in the construction of relationships and in the power struggles that they inevitably entail, it is fitting that the film uses dialogue as a dance. Yet for all its formal innovations, it has never really got the credit it has deserved.

Perhaps La Maman et la Putain is too bleak for many audiences, too self-absorbed for others, or too ‘of-its-time’ for others. To some viewers, it may seem to be all three at once. It seems the perfect Nouvelle Vague film – in that it utilises formal and narrative innovation, but also self-reflexively critiques the social setting from which it came. Above all else though, this film is a masterpiece. Despite focusing on a specific milieu of an early 1970s post-counterculture hangover, it feels more contemporary than anything else made in what was cinema’s most important movement.

* Note : La Maman et La Putain is not available with English subtitles on DVD, though there is a DVD in French with Japanese subtitles available on Japanese Amazon. However, it is available on VHS in a version with English subtitles from Aro St Video in Wellington.

ENDS