The ‘Mother’ of All Movies: A French Classic Makes a Welcome Return

‘The Mother and the Whore,’ Jean Eustache’s film whose restoration will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival, shocked audiences upon its release in 1973. Today, it’s considered a work that both encapsulates and ends the New Wave movement

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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A scene from "The Mother and the Whore."
A scene from "The Mother and the Whore."Credit: BERNARD PRIM/Collection Christophel
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

When it premiered in 1973, French filmmaker Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore” (“La maman et la putain”) was a unique, extraordinary, eccentric and challenging experience. Nearly 50 years on, it still is.

It was only screened a few times in Israel, including when Eustache visited shortly before he committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 42 – but it was never commercially released. Now a fully restored version will be shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival next week and, once again, it’s a notable event.

Like other great and important films, “The Mother and the Whore” presaged both an end and simultaneously a beginning of something that is vague yet could erupt at any moment.

Conventional wisdom holds that a typical French film, especially one set in Paris and shot in black and white, is one where people sit in coffeehouses, smoke cigarettes, chat and then move on for more of the same in the bedroom. Just think of that long, wonderful scene in which Michel and Patricia chat in her room in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (“À bout de souffle”); the coffeehouse scene in Claude Chabrol’s “The Cousins” (“Les cousins”); and the lengthy nighttime conversation between Jean-Louis and Maud in Éric Rohmer’s “My Night at Maude’s” (“Ma nuit chez Maud”). They were all quintessential examples of the New Wave movement that broke out in France at the start of the 1960s and forged a new model for contemporary filmmaking.

It is the clichés of this genre, but also its inevitable presence, against which Eustache faces off. He stretches this basic and seemingly meager situation into 215 minutes (over three and a half hours) until we become trapped in the material, fluttering over its many minutes, perhaps even trying to break free.

Jean-Pierre Léaud in "The Mother and the Whore" (La maman et la putain").Credit: Elite Films / Planfilm

Four characters fill the physical and emotional universe of “The Mother and the Whore,” which is at heart an examination of relationships between men and women. Alexandre is an unemployed young man who considers himself an intellectual. He experiences the events of May 1968 in Paris and belongs to the “lost generation” that sparked the-revolution-that-wasn’t. He lives with Marie, who owns a boutique and supports him financially. Yet this doesn’t stop him from reuniting with his ex-lover Gilberte. He proposes to her, but it turns out she is already promised to another.

Alexandre also meets Veronika, a French-Polish nurse who wants to be part of the free love revolution. Veronika, the more conservative Marie and Alexandre move in together, and here, in the ménage à trois they create, they discuss every subject under the sun of interest to society, culture, politics and morals of the early ’70s. It is a film that continue to confound to this day.

What is particularly amazing about the film is that it speaks in two voices – the male and the female – and these voices also sometimes split. I don’t know another film that does this in such an extreme way.

Listen to the voices: To Alexandre, who says he can’t be interested in anyone who isn’t interested in him, or love anyone who doesn’t love him. To Veronika, who asks why a woman can’t say to a man she wants to f*** him, and declares that a couple which doesn’t not intend to have a child is not a couple. To Marie, who says she hates people who suffer in silence.

Alexandre says the source of a man’s pride is in his ability to take from his best friend the woman they love. It’s all emptiness, all ennui, he says. Veronika, meanwhile, accuses him of talking to her about his nightmares while she is talking to him about her dreams.

Director Jean Eustache on the set of "The Mother and the Whore."Credit: BERNARD PRIM / Collection Christophel

Four play

We should spend some time here celebrating the actors who play the four characters who populate the film. Gilberte, whose role is a relatively supporting one, is played by Isabelle Weingarten, who was chosen by the French director Robert Bresson – whom Eustache greatly admired – to star in his 1971 film “Four Nights of a Dreamer” (“Quatre nuits d’un rêveur”), based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The director chose his former lover Françoise Lebrun – who until then had been seen only in small roles in a couple of films but later became a big star – to play Veronika.

In general, the female characters here are based on Eustache’s former partners. One of them, Catherine Garnier, committed suicide after seeing a rough cut of the film.

The other two roles were filled by close friends of Eustache, who both came to him from the world of renowned director François Truffaut. The charming Bernadette Lafont, who plays Marie, was one of the symbols of the French New Wave movement. She starred in Truffaut’s lovely short “The Mischief Makers” (“Les mistons”) in 1958, and just before “The Mother and the Whore,” also starred in Truffaut’s crime comedy “A Gorgeous Girl Like Me” (“Une belle fille comme moi”).

Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays Alexandre, became an even greater film icon than Lafont. He is best-known for the character of Antoine Doinel – the role he played in four Truffaut feature films and one short, beginning with “The 400 Blows” (“Les quatre cents coups”) in 1959. Léaud appeared in other Truffaut films, including 1973’s “Day for Night,” but the character of Antoine was always present in them.

He also appeared in several films by Godard, including “Made in U.S.A.” and “La Chinoise,” and once said that if Truffaut was his father, Godard – whose works are often compared to Truffaut’s – was his uncle.

“The Mother and the Whore” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973 and claimed the Jury Prize (the top prize went to U.S. director Jerry Schatzberg for “Scarecrow”). It is known that actress Ingrid Bergman, who headed the jury that year, was shocked at the sex scenes and refused to give “Whore” the Palme d’Or.

“The Mother and the Whore” generated controversy at almost every stage of its life. At Cannes, critics both praised and slammed it. It was a similar story when it was shown commercially, both in France and overseas. Some even managed to praise and object to it at the same time. The legendary film critic Pauline Kael, for instance, said it reminded her of the films of John Cassavetes in its ability “to put raw truth on the screen – including the boring and the trivial,” just like real life.

Over the years, appreciation for “The Mother and the Whore” has grown, and it has come to be seen as a work that both embodied yet also brought down the curtain on the New Wave movement. In a Time Out Paris poll asking critics to name their 100 best French films, it came in second after Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” (“La Règle Du Jeu”) and before Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise” (“Les Enfants Du Paradis”).

In 2005, American director Jim Jarmusch dedicated his film “Broken Flowers” to Eustache. When he was interviewed at Cannes, where the film won the Jury Prize, Jarmusch explained that he although had never actually seen “The Mother and the Whore,” the film poster moved him. He had it hanging in his room and he looked at it the entire time he was writing the script for “Broken Flowers.” It also touched him that Eustache had committed suicide. And perhaps in his imagination, Eustache was joining the characters in his films that have become immortal.

“The Mother and the Whore” is screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Tuesday July 26 and Thursday July 28.

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