Un-Cannes-y Valley: The Mother and the Whore

I have written before that, more than any other cinematic movement, the French New Wave was a line in the sand. If so, Jean Esutache’s The Mother and the Whore is very likely the only film ever to divide up the line, or to redraw it. Not only that, but it draws on the face of the New Wave mythology by casting the mask most commonly associated with the movement – Jean-Pierre Léaud – as a blasé, wandering pseudo-intellectual with an endless pool for inhuman pontification but precious little wells of human warmth. He falls for a nurse named Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), less out of any joy found lurking in her personhood than in a blank need for sex that circles around his personhood like a vulture. He lives with his girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Lafont), who provides the lion’s share of his money, but he plays her as he plays Veronika; as objects and passive beings for him to use as he sees fit. Then, play is a questionable word. That would imply a passion in his heart, but from the beginning of the film until the very end, all we find is timidity and a pregnancy of nothing.

The man, Alexandre, isn’t a human you or I might meet, however; he is self-consciously an idea, a cinematic prism with which Eustache, writing and directing, can both rekindle and wring out the soul of the French New Wave, a movement forever fascinated and fixated on the artifice of films. An artifice men like Godard, the first rock star of the New Wave, confronted with equal vials of hate and joy. In films like Band of Outsiders, the New Wavers criticized the power dynamics of filmmaking, but they also attested to the life-blood found in classical genre cinema – noir and the like – with a sincere sympathy for all that was “movie-like” about them. They were proud cinema enthusiasts, first and foremost.

And yet, if cinema for them was an object of the soul, a lexicon for understanding humanity, many of the fiercest critics of the New Wave undoubtedly felt that the humanity was somewhat lost in the transition to the new age of film. Too much style, too much genre-reconstruction, too little feeling is and has always been a valid line of critique levied against the New Wave, even if it misses the aesthetic beauty and subversive anti-cool brand of cool found in even the most contemptuous of Godard’s films. Eustache, providing a fierce period to the fifteen year sentence of the New Wave, was clearly haunted by similar complaints against himself, as well as his own beliefs about his fellow New Wave filmmakers, who were by turns his friends and enemies. The Mother and the Whore wears the leather-jacket-and-sunglasses intellectualism of the New Wave on its sleeve until the skin underneath becomes pallid, and the eyes blind to humanity. It is not simply a critique of the New Wave, but a vocal refutation of their sometimes self-conceited exercises in artificial cool and genre-bound entertainment.

Alexandre, our lost soul who doesn’t much care to find himself or fit into society, engages in some demented triad with Veronika and Maria, as the two quickly gain awareness of each other. The trio commences some variant of consensual living arrangement, if only so they can be nearer one another such that they can draw their fangs further, so they can each have someone to hate, and so they can each apply a prodigious layer of self-conceited superiority to their otherwise self-loathing skins. Whatever the physical qualities of their oblong three-way relationship, the mental punishment they all feel is clear to us, even if none of them really sheds a tear for their own pain.

Mother is absolutely a difficult film, but it is also a necessary one, a wheat thresher within which the holy texts of modern cinema are ripped apart and reconstructed with a nose for unearthing their sometimes mechanical lack of interest in anything a little fleshier than celluloid. There is more though; namely, an eye for the vivaciousness of the lyrical New Wave techniques – bullets into the heart of passive cinema in their day. Eustache’s film reminds us of the possibility of the New Wave, chiefly through utilizing the techniques of the movement to reconnect to the heart of what once made the movement so special. The film’s consistent human discourse with people speaking at one another rather than too one another, the film’s angular, disquieting frames that choke the life out of human beings, and the film’s artificial costuming to identify people as constructs of film and media more than flesh and bone; all are bonafide New Wave tools. And all are used here to dissect the New Wave. Tough, even bitter love Eustache provides then, but the very fact that he respects the technique of the New Wave so much shows that he still welcomed the movement, that he still sought refuge in it for confronting the world’s problems. Even the ones that the movement exacerbated.

It is thus a deeply disquieting film, a work of hard cinema for hard cinema lovers, casting the quintessential New Wave hero as a youthful braggart of inconsequential frailty and unending stubbornness. Yet Esutache’s film is never willfully alienating, owing largely to a callous and deliciously unkempt dose of sardonic anti-humor in the way it perverts and bends the New Wave aesthetic to increasingly malleable purposes. It is by turns a romantic fable when it wants to be, a refutation of that fable when it so calls itself, and generally a joke at the expense of the quintessentially, comically French brand of hate-sex that the three central characters, more ciphers and icons than people, engage in. Alexandre especially is framed in the center of shots, to reflect his own egotism, while the camera is left visibly waiting in the cold while he bickers on an on about ersatz philosophy and the nature of identity without any real hope but to stroke his own ego. The quiet solitude of the frames becomes melancholy and scandalously funny in equal measure.

The film plays a little like Alexandre’s ego turned id, let loose to switch tones within scenes and left out for over three hours until the lurid sexual fantasy of the piece becomes comical and Alexandre’s – and thus the New Wave’s – implicit “boys club” chauvinism becomes ugly and largely without a tether (the film’s title doesn’t refer to who these two women are, but how Alexandre uses them). It is an altogether beguiling behemoth of clashing purposes and tones – both whimsical and melancholy in the same frame, at once clapped-shut and open-mouthed in another, and fumblingly shabby and infused with clarity of purpose throughout. It wanders, but never pointlessly, largely because its languorous wandering is the point. Like Antonioni’s L’Avventura filtered through the manic hedonism of the New Wave and the pummeling pop of the 1960s, it is a work where boredom is warm and exciting and excitement is boring and stone-cold. It is a nebulous composite of self-mockingly erudite, high-class intellectualism and low-brow, below-the-belt sexual impulses.

Throughout, intersections and pauses of power are found in the frames that position the three individuals relative to one another as reflections of their desires and interests in each other, moving the characters above or below one another, to the left or to the right, asking them to stare at each other with cautious sideways glances or longing head-first glares. This is a film where the very physical relationship of the characters in the frame plays both the scandalous gossip columnist – teasing us with the prurient impulses hiding within the empty spaces between them – and the puritanical thought-purger – lingering on the doubt that the three will ever fulfill anything with their actions. Eustache is tempting us with the lustful needs of the three individuals while also asking us why they need each other at all, such that the film is both an invitation and a restraining order, the very carnal dialectic Eustache is occupying with regard to the French New Wave as well. It is a work of unbounded sexual frivolity and caustic social commentary, and yet it still feels innocent and bewitchingly childlike even as it displays the world weary wisdom of age. For this reason, as broken down as these characters are, there is still a sense that Eustache wants to save them, and that he wants in on their escapades. Thus, if his film is a flesh wound on the skin of the New Wave, it is only to remind us that the movement can still bleed, and that it is still alive and well in the heart of modern cinema.

Score: 10/10

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