His Little Loves

The life and films of Jean Eustache
by Nick Pinkerton  posted June 12, 2008
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Bad Company: The Films of Jean Eustache,
Cinematheque Ontario, July 11-17, 2008

Jean Eustache's Circle,
French Institute Alliance Francaise, April 1-29, 2008

With career-savvy controversies and choreographed despair ever more ubiquitous at the movies, it can be difficult to have faith in actual cinematic risk-taking. Take the case, then, of the late Jean Eustache, whose conflation of life and movies made for a cinema of real physical grit. He was an artist of great cultivation and erudition whose method nevertheless retained his blue-collar origins. He didn't pass down ideas from the front office, but climbed down into the guts of his preoccupations and wrangled with them and got grime under his nails. Most frequently, though, his cinematic toolkit was applied to demolition jobs—against dissipation, intellectual loftiness, aesthetic trendiness, My Generation smugness, middle-class decency, bohemian decadence, audience expectations, and above all, himself.

In a truncated and ostentatiously anguished existence, Eustache left biographers a trail of emotional wreckage, his life a bacchanal countdown to its inevitable snuffing-out. He also completed a handful of documentaries, shorts, TV work, and two autobiographical feature-length fiction films, one of which survives as a legend—even with scarce advertisement, The Mother and the Whore (1973) sells out a theater in New York the way few subtitled epics can.

In his native France he has been the subject of a book-length critical study (by Alain Phillippon) and a 2001 tell-all memoir, Mes années Eustache (My Eustache Years), by ex-lover Evane Hanska, but there remains a dearth of writing on Eustache in English. His reputation in North America has grown regardless, though more through the testimony of artists than through critical consensus, understandable as his self-destruction lends him an irresistible air of martyrdom. The evangelical mission of a 2000 Lincoln Center retrospective, which resulted in the subtitling of several previously untranslated prints, now continues with a touring program circulated by the French Embassy's Office of Audiovisual Affairs, which has passed through Washington D.C., New York City, and Chicago—Toronto is next, with a weeklong stopover at the Cinematheque Ontario in July.

One who's seen Eustache's biography only as filtered through Mother might characterize him as a postgrad boulevardier, a rive gauche satyr loading up at the after-the-sexual-revolution erotic banquet. But the Parisian-ness of that film is an exception; the director showed lifelong sentimental fidelity to the Southern provinces of his youth (and a lifelong affinity for the vernacular filmmaking of Marseilles-based Marcel Pagnol). He was born in 1938 into a working-class family in Pessac (on the southwestern Atlantic seaboard), where he stayed on with his grandmother after his parents' divorce. Around age 12 he was returned to his mother in Narbonne (on the Mediterranean coast), a move depicted in his 1974 feature Mes petites amoureuses (My Little Loves); both "hometowns" would appear throughout his work.

Eustache was an ardent filmgoer from the start—though in this matter, as in most others, he was largely responsible for his own education. He never passed his baccalaureate, and worked as an electrician and in construction, before extracting himself from his class fate to attempt Paris in 1957, where he got a job with the railroad (and, on the side, sold contraband copies of Georges Bataille's then-forbidden Story of the Eye). Vocational film training also came, first from the Cinematheque Francaise, then editing Scopitones, hanging around acquaintances' film shoots, and eventual employment at RTF (French public television). His wife, Jeanne "Jeanette" Delos, was a secretary at Cahiers du Cinéma. A fringe character at the then-illustrious New Wave headquarters, which he visited daily, ostensibly to pick up Jeannette, Eustache was going to work for himself. Come 1963, he was officially a director, with a 16mm short in the can to take to festivals.

Les Mauvaises fréquentations (Bad Company, 1963) follows two suburban hangabouts who break from their routine of café pinball (a recurring totem in Eustache films) to pick up girls. They latch onto a young mother who they chaperone to a Place Clichy dancehall; when she irks with her inattention, they lift her billfold—then guiltily return the wallet in the mail.

The film establishes Eustache's attraction to anecdotal plots, tatty locales, and petty sadism, but it's Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (Father Christmas Has Blue Eyes, 1966) that finds his recognizable style crystallized. The novella-length film (47 minutes) was shot over Christmas 1965 in Narbonne, with stock and star (Jean-Pierre Léaud) left over from Godard's Masculine Feminine. Young provincial Daniel's keenest obsession is the purchase of a fashionable duffel coat in time for New Year's. With his similarly girlfriendless, underemployed pals, he pulls chump-change scams and tries to badger girls into dates.

A local photographer hires Daniel to pose in the town square as Père Noël, the francophone world's Santa Claus. When he's disappeared behind his pelt-like beard and loose warlock robe, every chick in town is ready to snuggle up for a snapshot. The film establishes a mystical reverence for the powers of couture and self-presentation that carries through Eustache's filmography. The man who hires Léaud is identified as "one of the few well-dressed men in town," a missionary-like figure in the provinces, holding the secrets of the opposite sex. This character recurs in Mes petites amoureuses , first in a visiting circus performer, and then "le dragueur" (basically a pick-up artist, played here by Pierre Edelman), whose accessories are quite literal aides to seduction. Eustache was a student of dandyism, and he dressed the part of the romantic artist—see his alter-ego Alexandre (Léaud) in Mother, wearing the director's trademark Beatle boots, hangover shades, and Byronic mane, opining on the missed sartorial opportunities of WWII ("The prestige of the uniform!") and the magnificent illusionary powers of clothes ("They ascribe the elegance of the suit to the person")

Le Cochon (The Pig, 1970) is the only Eustache documentary in the current retrospective, and so must stand in for an entire period of his artistic development. On either side of it, he recorded the long-standing civic ceremony to elect Pessac's most virtuous girl (The Virgin of Pessac, 1968), and a nearly two-hour interview with his ancient grandmother (the full-length cut, Numéro Zéro, remained unseen until 2003).

Like contemporary Maurice Pialat, with whom Eustache's essentially realist sensibility was in many ways aligned, he grounded himself in faithfully recording the tactile world before starting into his most ambitious fictions (the documentary impulse is at work as early as Père Noël, in seemingly surreptitious scenes in the marketplace or city square, and the musique concrète of passing cars). This isn't to reduce Le Cochon to a training exercise—it is a fully formed work, and a masterpiece of a kind. The filmmaking is almost completely transparent, a model of cinematography fused to subject.

Eustache, shooting in concert with Jean-Michel Barjol, follows a day of labor on a farm in the rugged Cévennes range in the Massif Central. A fatted hog is led into a courtyard by five farmers, smoking cigarette nubs and speaking slushy, vernacular French. Under a sparse snowfall, the bound victim's throat is punctured. Gouts of blood, steaming in the cold, glug into a waiting bucket. At first pierced by shrill dread, the film settles into archiving of detail. The body is ceremoniously bathed and shaved, then decapitated, vivisected, emptied, the intestines washed out for sausage casing. The result is neither a PETA tract nor Franju's abattoir philosophy, but an extraordinarily concentrated study in artisanal process.

In Eustache's choice of documentary subjects, however "neutrally" filmed, there's a noteworthy interest in the old, handcrafted France. In a time when many intellectuals still anticipated the dawn of an entirely new world, Eustache was looking back to that which had largely disappeared in 1914. This incipient conservatism reaches its fullest expression in the nailbomb blast of The Mother and the Whore, in which director/critic Luc Moullet identifies "a kind-of right-wing anarchism, not so far removed from that of Céline's novels." In a Cahiers du Cinéma writeup, Pascal Bonitzer likewise drew comparison to the disgraced author of Journey to the End of the Night. Like Céline, Eustache venerated his grandmother and le vieille France, though in subject matter, the director almost predicts the sexual counter-revolutionary line of Michel Houellebecq.

The temptation to make literary comparisons comes with the torrential talkiness of The Mother and the Whore, a film whose legendary length (210 minutes) gives it the bulk of a final testament. Françoise Lebrun's character provides the blurb synopsis: "You love one woman, fuck another, and what a bunch of shit it all is." Alexandre lives off Marie (Bernadette Lafont), thirtyish and managing a little dress shop of her own. He's the same kid from Père Noël, but grown up into the kind of well-dressed skirt-chaser he idolized, and now smart enough to sustain himself on deep-space flights of fatuous erudition. His seduction technique is verbal peacocking; he's first seen vainly strutting at an ex, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), who's clearly heard enough, then moves on to a casual café pick-up, Veronika (Lebrun), generally making it home in time to eat Marie's dinner.

This increasingly knotted threesome would justify Serge Daney's eulogy for Eustache eight years later: "His cinema was mercilessly personal. That is to say, mercilessly tied up with his experience, to alcohol, to love. Filling up his life in order to make the material of his films was his only moral code but it was a moral code of iron. The films came when he was strong enough to make them come, to bring back what he made in life." It was shot in Eustache's apartment. The dialogues came from surreptitiously tape-recorded conversation-performances. The model for the "mother" character, ex-girlfriend Catherine Garnier, worked on the film's crew—and committed suicide after seeing a rough cut (Eustache discovered the body). Lebrun had also been a girlfriend of Eustache's for 10 on-and-off years; she was his assistant on Virgin (her character, Veronika, was inspired by the director's dalliance with Marinka Matuszewski, a young nurse of, per Hanska, "loose habits and language").

The Mother and the Whore takes place amid the rubble of two collapsed belief systems—one stern, prewar, Catholic, represented by the Sunrise Preacher's early morning radio hour, which Alexandre tunes in to with a mixture of bemusement and awe ("He never varies in the slightest!") The title, of course, refers to the female roles assigned by the church, the Marys Virgin and Magdalene—absolutes that Eustache plays with in obscure inversions. The ideal of "purity," if of an unorthodox sort, clearly held a lingering fascination for Eustache, hence the lingering pull of the ceremony in Pessac. Veronika, ever wet-and-ready for whomever, appears unblemished in her immaculate nurse's smock or habit—like black shawl, and her solemn suffering gives her a saintly gravity (Alexandre's ex, Gilberte, also suggests spotless virtue: actress Weingarten's sole previous performance was as the chaste, secluded girl in Bresson's Dostoevsky-inspired Four Nights of a Dreamer) The inchoate longing for a perceived security of the past is expressed through soundtrack cues: aside from a snatch of Deep Purple LP, most all of the chansons featured (Édith Piaf, Damia, Fréhel) look to the WW II era and earlier. (Though French and American pop histories are vastly different, in terms of cultural and class allegiance this is something like like an East Village hipster of the '70s whose soul is moved only by the strains of the Grand Ole Opry.)

The second dispelled faith is the younger creed of Total Upheaval, seen here to have failed in both its personal (specifically sexual) and social aspects. Alexandre: "There was the Cultural Revolution, May '68, the Rolling Stones, long hair, the Black Panthers, the Palestinians, the underground. And for the past two or three years, nothing anymore." Giving some ammunition to those who would brand Eustache a neo-fascist, Alexandre regularly comports with an SS-fetishizing best friend (Jacques Renard), the duo taking potshots at celebrity Communists Jacques Duclos and J-P Sartre from their booth at Les Deux Magots. And there is the film's famous summation, a bracing and gross kind of "redemption" as a sloshed Veronika condemns sex-without-love in a long profane slur, before purging herself by puking into a bucket. The great dilemma is that of finding real passion in a world stripped of sin, and with sin, of the attendant mystery.

In the main, Eustache's film, handed down with the heft of stone tablets, was just too much of an unprecedented monolith to deny. Some cried reactionary. Stateside, the Washington Post's Gary Arnold excoriated Eustache as "puritanical," before suggesting the material might better be handled by "Paul Mazursky or Phillippe de Broca or Claude Berri." Pauline Kael was more receptive, but the famous practitioner of criticism-as-hedonism fretted that there might be more intended to Veronika's final confessional than "the familiar rant of Catholic women on the sauce." Both thought to connect the film to Dostoevsky, applying the mystifying criterion that Eustache's debut failed by falling short of Crime and Punishment.

The failure of a reassuring conclusion gives the film its lasting potency. Long before Veronika's teary direct-address, Alexandre offers a warning against facile interpretations: "You say very beautiful things. But in a bad film it would be called the message." This is not a work that solves itself, but a flagellating self-analysis, wrenched and wracked with indecisions. And that it is at once of the counterculture and against it, cross-examining the assumptions of "self-liberation," is precisely what makes the film essential, in much the same way that the greatest novel associated with the Beat movement is probably The Recognitions, lone wolf William Gaddis's deconstruction of Bohemia, rife with Catholic relapses. The credits will finally have their second coming, but we have known these characters too intimately to imagine that their epiphanies will be inured to backsliding, or that anything really ends here.

The Mother and the Whore rocked the Croisette, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, though jury president Ingrid Bergman couldn't stand it. With its success, Eustache found easy financing for Mes petites amoureuses, the cruel story of his provincial adolescence that had long been a dream project. For Amy Taubin, writing in the Village Voice, it "embodies [Eustache's] perverse refusal to capitalize on success... return[ing] to the two small working-class towns where he grew up." Part of the reason for its lesser reputation may be its style, less sui generis than its predecessor. It's a typical, manageable two hours. The director's "flattening" approach with actors seems to parallel that of Bresson or Fassbinder (whom the presence of Ingrid Caven further recalls), while the sense of isolated sadness owes something to Pialat's contemporary works on overlooked adolescents (La Maison des bois and L'Enfance nue). The autobiographical settling of childhood accounts recalls a French artistic tradition that carries from Jules Renard's Poil de carotte clear through The 400 Blows.

Despite its eclipsed reputation, the film is magisterial. In calm impressionistic strokes, Eustache transcribes—and in doing so, ennobles the rites of adolescent mating as something nearly liturgical (a metaphor made concrete when, in an early scene, 12-year-old Eustache alter-ego Daniel presses his hard-on against the girl lined up ahead of him for First Communion). Likewise ritualized are the filmmaker's formative memories of a young man learning to give himself value through performance. Daniel reproduces the act of a visiting circus magician and after the boy finishes his plagiarized show, a girlfriend straddles and smothers him. Imitating imitations will instruct his sexual fumblings, the swooning passion of Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman prods an anonymous grope in a theater balcony (Alexandre in Mother: "Films teach you how to live.")

Eustache told Luc Moullet he wanted Mes petites amoureuses "to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole." But the film's actual relationship with nostalgia is ambivalent. Much of it is a vision of adolescence-as-purgatory, with 12-year-old Daniel uprooted from his familiar, bucolic life with his grandmother to live in Narbonne with his mother (Caven) and her lover (that Eustache would become a trenchant critic of sexual permissiveness should be understandable—it apparently wrecked his childhood).

The domestic existence he finds with her is an entombment; the "boyfriend" is a Spanish émigré farm laborer, José (Dionys Mascolo), who seems almost mummified by disappointment. Caven has a wet, waxen pallor and a mortician's makeup job. The couple sit and tobacco-stain the gaudy wallpaper; the one time they leave the apartment together, they silently sit across the canal from the teeming life on the town's main promenade and smoke. They're afraid to be seen out: José's divorce hasn't been finalized, it's explained.

The film touches abstract, private feelings with in the most discreet of gestures: a pan over the reassuringly familiar objects on a mantelpiece; a first long train journey seen through dozed-off ellipses. The soft-edged, plein air cinematography—Néstor Almendros channeling Claude Lorrain—is crushingly picturesque, an about-face from Mother's ink-and-charcoal 16mm, seen to best advantage as Daniel and a pack of boys bike to a neighboring village to hunt dates.

Writing in Film Quarterly circa 1974, Ernest Callenbach would filter Mother through the prevailing ethos at UC Berkeley, viewing the film as an exorcism of "our old familiar demon, Romantic Love." But then Mes petites works to solemnly summon that "demon," the transformative ideal of intimacy, blocked off by the scrim of memory.It seems to have been the one ideal its author clutched, a cherished souvenir. The melancholy is deepened by the knowledge that Eustache's second feature would be his last. The movie, which remains very little seen, pleased neither audiences nor critics—Hanska attributes the latter failure to Eustache tossing a critic who'd been antagonistic to Mother from a press screening.

Heaven and Hell. The apex of Eustache's sexual disappointment comes in his diptych short(s) Une sale histoire (A Dirty Story) I & II shot in 1977. The director's friend, Jean Nöel-Picq (the Offenbach fan from Mother), recites a licentious story supposedly taken from his actual life. In the film's other "half," the same monologue is given by the actor Michael Lonsdale in a nearly word-for-word reenactment, before a new group of listeners, in the same room. Nöel-Picq and Lonsdale recount their discovery of a much-frequented peephole beveled under the doorway of the women's restroom in a café they regularly visited. The peephole becomes a consuming obsession, the center of their sex lives, their world. The process of seduction now elided, they become divorced from any traditional sexual transaction, but devoted connoisseurs of disembodied genitalia. "All bodily hierarchies had been capsized," the speaker explains, his experience suggesting a metaphor for the epidemic demystification of sexuality. "This era's disabused," he concludes, "I miss the Victorian age."

It is, foremost, a very funny rumination on sexual imagination in the age of pornographic reproduction. But the Sales histoires are also an experiment, with Eustache running a theoretical test case in contrasting structure. Having worked in documentary and fiction (fictions in which amateurs are cast alongside professionals), he's here feeling around to find the exact point of separation between the two modes. Of the myriad conflicting impulses that make up Jean Eustache, this may be the most essential: a desire to separate the "fake" from the "real"—or to find out if indeed they can be separated. (Renard enthusing over the Nazis' Marlene Dietrich replacement, Zarah Leander: "Like all imitators she is better than the original."). So Une sale histoire rephrases the questions raised in Mes petites amoureuses, as Daniel learns to the rules of life through impersonation, and in The Mother and the Whore, where the contrast of counterfeiting and sincerity in Alexandre's two declarations of love bookends the film. Recall that Mother was based on recorded conversations—yet the dialogues and Leaud's delivery are so extravagant as to be the antithesis of accepted realism; he declaims his opinions as though for posterity. When frustrated, he treats his women like a displeased director: "You should have said..." Imagine that their author must have, in the back of his mind, been preparing his movie when reeling out rehearsed diatribes to his girlfriends—here you'll start to see how inextricable Jean Eustache's life was from his movies.

The critic Jean-André Fieschi (who appeared in Une sale histoire) reported that toward the end of his life, Eustache had difficulty separating reality from films. And nothing could be trusted. Eustache returned to Pessac to record the coronation of 1979, now with a more jaundiced kino-eye. Even the playful feuilleton of a short, Les Photos d'Alix, made the same year, centers on a troubling obfuscation of meaning, the unreliability of images. Alix-Clio Roubaud sits down with a teenager, played by Eustache's son, Boris, to explain the significance of the photographs she has taken. As the explanations proceed, it's gradually apparent that they no longer relate to the photograph shown on screen, that the explanations seem to have been completely reshuffled (the great accomplishment is that it's difficult to say just how or when this sleight-of-film is pulled off).

The work never stopped outright, and never became dull. He tapped out screenplays with Nöel-Picq, a sort-of guided tour of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthy Delight, titled Le Jardin des délices de Jérôme Bosch, for the TV series Les Enthousiastes, and a short fiction film, Offre d'emploi. And then he killed himself.

Part of what is so attractive about Eustache is, let's be frank, his "undiscovered" status: his films are nonexistent on DVD, and rarely screened—such preemptive barriers to trend-sniffers are no small thing in the era of downloadable cool. What must also be considered is his singular end. Prematurely middle-aged through a vampiric schedule of dissipation, he put a bullet through his heart on November 5, 1981 (a retrospective of his had been running at IDHEC in Paris).

Eustache had attempted suicide as early as 1957, evidently to escape military service in Algeria—he spent a year in the psychiatric hospital for his trouble. Following his one great success, Mother, he'd gained a reputation as a a chronic gambler and a flamboyant wreck; "Jack Daniels" is, tellingly, the credited technical adviser on The Mother and the Whore.. In Wim Wenders's The American Friend, Eustache's bit part was, naturally, "The Man at the Bar." He was resting a leg wrecked by a fall in Greece (a suicide attempt or an accident, depending on who you believe) and had become a recluse. Philippon refers to recollections of Eustache at this time as a secluded, "Mabusian" figure. It was Fieschi who discovered the body at Eustache's apartment on Rue Nollet.

For anyone considering Eustache as an artist, this act suggests a number of readings. It gives his work an unimpeachable authenticity—no trifling poseur, the argument goes, could carry out an act of such gravity (always looking for the ultimate verity, Eustache came closest in the blood sacrifice of Le Cochon). Those romantically inclined might imagine that the world of 1981, or Eustache's experience of it, had moved too far from the tradition-bound youth to which he could not return. So was his suicide, like Stefan Zweig's (or Debord's?), the act of a cultural exile, his roots ripped from that which had nourished him? A 1981 interview with a then-bedridden Eustache, by Serge Toubiana and Serge Le Péron, finds the filmmaker dwelling on a television viewing of Nous irons à Paris, no masterpiece, he admits, but cherished for providing a window in time, "an image of France in 1950."

Bernard Tavernier reads Eustache's suicide as a "crisis of creative impotence": "He chose to write about his personal dramas, and at a certain point he exhausted the materials of his own life." Sentimentalists may opt for the tragic-poetic angle: the maverick with his wings clipped. Though Eustache was too old to suggest postcard images of the poisoned Chatterton in his sordid garret, the turbulence of his existence allowed him to depart with a certain rockstar pageantry, à la Ian Curtis. Like Curtis, Eustache left behind a small but unimpeachable body of work. And also like Curtis, Eustache effectively abandoned a child-two sons entering adulthood, in fact—which offers another reading to this act: He was a self-absorbed ass (reads the graffiti in Mother: "Jump, Narcissus").

It is impossible to know what Eustache had yet to offer. Pialat was the one who continued the tightrope walk between real and filmed life, producing an immeasurably richer body of work. But the sum of Eustache's life behind the camera, barely 15 years, needs to be recognized as more than The Mother and the Whore. It comprises an extraordinarily multifaceted collection of films, works so uncompromised, so completely his, so devoted to the working-through of his self-reproaches and idiosyncratic little loves as to make them impossible to really build on. Because Eustache stood outside his era, I think his reputation is potentially much greater with a younger generation of filmgoers than with the boomers who saw Mother the first time around, since the creative class of that generation, understandably, retain an idea of the essential nobility of their youthful endeavors (see the ongoing enshrinement of St. Dylan). But like it or not, Jean Eustache is on his way toward crashing the canon. 

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Courtesy FIAF and Boris Eustache
Martin Loeb and Marie-Paule Fernandez in Jean Eustache's Mes petites amoureuses
Photo Gallery: His Little Loves

RELATED CALENDAR ENTRY

April 1-29, 2008 Jean Eustache's Circle

KEYWORDS

Jean Eustache  |  Retrospective  |  French cinema  |  sexuality

THE AUTHOR

Nick Pinkerton has written about films in The Village Voice, Reverse Shot, and Stop Smiling magazine. He is a product of Cincinnati, Ohio, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

More articles by Nick Pinkerton