Brandon Kaufman on the 4K restoration of The Mother and the Whore by Jean Eustache
By Brandon Kaufman
The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain, Jean Eustache, 1973)
English-language critics invariably write about Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain, 1973) as his first-hand document of ennui, as a cache of political and existential uncertainty, and, above all, as a time capsule of the aftermath of May 1968 in France. Every film indexes the mood and mores and geography of its time, and so the formation of such a critical consensus is understandable. The primary document view of Eustache’s film has become a critical laurel on which subsequent interpretations have rested, but it seems to me that its undue weight raises a problem. If The Mother and the Whore is but a primary document, Eustache is rendered a passive observer. His gloomy and disaffected characters who find sex alienating and the family salvatory in turn become spokespeople for the film. This is one reason the film has been called ‘radically conservative’: leading man Alexandre’s (Jean-Pierre Leaud) bleak pontificating has been chalked up to Eustache’s worldview. I grant that it is a rather conservative film—a pessimistic one, too—but its status as such is exaggerated in light of this documentary reading. The Mother and the Whore consists of so much dialogue and monologue that the viewer searches in vain for an authorial voice. What is overlooked in this discussion is its subtle but critical formal strategies, which, of course, is precisely the provenance of such a voice.
With The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache makes a more active historiographic intervention in his moment than these credentials as a primary document would have one believe. His characters’ conservatism can be understood through such formal strategies, and in the context of the contemporaneous ‘body moment’. He renders Alexandre, along with Veronika (Françoise Lebrun) and Marie (Bernadette Lafont) not as heroes but as victims of historical circumstance doomed to a suicidal understanding of themselves and one another. This is because The Mother and the Whore is about a generation made in the image of violence, who in turn have come to fear the body. To be born in 1938 or 1944 is to know the violent stranglehold of tear gas, or that skin can be turned into a lampshade, or how a mass of bodies in front of the wrong gun can turn to target practice.
How can we come together—especially sexually, but also politically—as hippies in San Francisco naively implored, with the body so pregnable, so vulnerable? That this revelation took until the colonial violence of the Algerian War was brought home demonstrates this white bourgeoisie’s own naïveté. Maybe they had been too young to remember the resistance, or that seven years earlier Parisian police drowned somewhere between forty and two hundred Algerians in the Seine. Either way, 1968 unleashed reminders of the temporal and geographic proximity of these two episodes of mass violence. In response to this violence, in form as in content, The Mother and the Whore enacts a deep scepticism about the body.
Veronika returns from the bathroom. She slides into the booth next to Alexandre and takes a sip from her whiskey and Coke. There was some graffiti in the john, she says. It read ‘Love opens out on death like a window on a courtyard.’ Scribbled below, the retort: ‘Jump, Narcissus!’ Alexandre does not betray a smile. He looks out at the other couples like them, whose shared nights tracing the landscapes of their lives have made them only more distant. As he stares across the bar, Alexandre is doubtless thinking about Marie, who is probably up waiting for him at their apartment; Marie who now seems his wife, now his victim, now his mother, now his ex.
Eustache repeatedly shoots his characters in close-ups. As he cleaves them to two sides of his découpage, they are proximate but nevertheless foiled by an inviolable remove. His two-shots seem to tease the possibility of communion only to frustrate it; this teasing-frustrating is a formal strategy to which Eustache returns throughout the film. Fades to black cut short Alexandre and Marie’s passionless sex. We do not even see Alexandre’s meet-cute with Veronika, for the image dims just as he runs after her on the street. It is a relationship drama devoid of sensuousness. When Veronika tells Alexandre that she thinks ‘only of death, of earth, of ashes’ when they have sex, she is speaking in the same language as Eustache’s bleak formalism. In form as in his characters’ own experience, consummation is just beyond reach.
In depicting this alienation The Mother and the Whore metabolises two contemporaneous and interconnected historical moments. For one, questions about the body hung in the air of French cultural and intellectual society in the ‘70s. The art corporeal movement, for example, rose to prominence that decade in such figures as Gina Pane, Michel Journiac, and ORLAN. Michel Foucault’s most comprehensive discussions of the body came a couple years after The Mother and the Whore in ‘Discipline and Punish’ (Surveiller et punir, 1975) and ‘The History of Sexuality’ (L’Histoire de la sexualité, 1976).
In Eustache’s film, the body is given the most stark attention when Veronika, a nurse, discusses her patients’ viscera, the way cancer has whittled them to husks, the drama of their last breath. One hears her talk of the patients’ fleshiness and never their humanity, neither their names nor their histories. The alienating effect of her indifference recalls the pathologists in Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), who similarly deal with the dying with a numbing matter-of-factness. Fittingly, the other nurse we learn of is Alexandre’s ex, who murdered her subsequent boyfriend and then killed herself. Eustache suggests that the boughs of modern medicine spring from draconian roots and cannot be separated from other forms of discipline and punishment. This is not just my Foucauldian reading of The Mother and the Whore, but a core component of its historical context.
What accounts for this body movement? One answer may be what the critic Robert Hughes called the ‘Hitler Revival’ of 1973. Hughes noted the phenomenon in a TIME article defending the documentary Swastika (1973) by Philippe Mora, which was received with great furor for supposedly humanising Hitler. As it happened, the Cannes premiere of Swastika was part of the same slate as The Mother and the Whore. (The premiere was halted after an audience member threw a chair at the screen.) I run the risk of being overly programmatic here, but what Hughes notes is a general movement in histories – and stories – of World War II, from the global to the personal. Dates and battles, theatres and treaties hitherto formed a kind of grand narrative that allowed for historical remembrance without the immediacy of microhistories.
With distance, more survivors testified (especially women), more heroes were lauded, more perpetrators were hunted. The war was brought from the epic to the personal. It was human, all too human; the stuff of phrenology and body experiments and packed cattle cars. Uncomfortable though it may be, Hughes argues, only ‘if Hitler is anchored in human reality will he stay dead’. The same applies to the colonial violence in Algeria, and to a less deleterious but nevertheless traumatic degree, the gendarme’s batons and tear gas in 1968. We can better understand, then, the political urgency of Michel Journiac’s performance ‘Trap for Capital Punishment’ (Piège pour une Exécution Capitale, 1971), for which he created a guillotine contoured to his dimension; or the social immediacy of Gina Pane’s ‘Unanesthetised Climb’ (1971), with the barefoot artist ascending and descending a ladder fitted with metal spikes until, bleeding profusely, she could no longer continue. Journiac and Pane belonged to l’art sociologique, a political movement that the art critic Bernard Tessyèdre said was born of the violence of May ‘68. These works are anchored in the human realities of violence.
Far from just internalising concerns of brutality, or simply being pregnant with this somatic moment, The Mother and the Whore is a cordage that connects them. At the beginning of the film, for example, Alexandre flips through a photograph book of the SS. His friend shows him a wheelchair which he boasts about stealing. ‘From whom?’ Alexandre asks. ‘I don’t know. Some cripple, no doubt.’ Eustache’s cutting between pictures of hanged White Rose members and this sociopathic lack of empathy illuminates the historical movement which made this possible. The other’s paralysed body is just an abstraction, like a character in one of Alexandre’s favourite Murnau films.
Violence, then, is the tributary from which the film’s sang froid flows. It has the effect of eroding basic precepts of empathy, like when Alexandre describes a tear-gassed crowd, huddling and crying in a cafe in May ‘68, as ‘beautiful’. When he encountered it, he said, it was as if a ‘crack in reality’ opened up. In that moment, Alexandre encounters the human anatomy’s ultimate powerlessness. He sees this noxious element suffocating the protestors, sees their eyes water, watches as they hold their throats. These atomised bodies appear to him at such a remove their suffering registers as aesthetic bliss. Alexandre’s reaction recalls Walter Benjamin’s contention that mankind’s ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’ Alexandre later admits he finds it difficult to walk the streets at night knowing anyone could be a murderer. He is scared, he says—he ‘doesn’t want to die’. This is what it is to live under the threat of violence.
With these revelations of violence, what is sex but an anguished reminder of breaking asunder? Is there room in these folds for torrid union? Veronika thinks not. She does not want any more dalliances, she wants true romance. ‘A couple that doesn’t want a baby is not a couple, it’s shit, it’s nothing, it’s dust’, she says. By the end of the film, just after a major fight and what seems surely to be the end of the relationship, Alexandre hastily proposes to Veronika. She accepts. One understands why she wants something more passionate than the cool whims of all these men, just as one understands why marriage seems the only security from Alexandre’s terror. The family as a balm to this alienation may be Eustache’s conservative leap of faith, but he makes clear it is not the panacea either think it will be. Alexandre says at the start of the film, ‘families always lose’, they are ‘just building on rotten foundations’. It is telling that Veronika vomits after accepting the proposal. Cautiously we leave them to continue building higher and higher on this dangerous ground.
State violence has triumphed in its goal all along the way. Bourgeois domesticity is shelter from the storm, the only way to at the very least feign connection with another. Pessimistic, yes, but understandable, and ultimately prescient.
With thanks to Edna Wan.
This review features in the second issue of Outskirts Film Magazine, available in print from August 2, 2023