Jean Eustache: The Mother and the Whore

The Mother and the Whore is 3.5 hours long, and feels it. Unlike Peter Greenaway’s six-hour The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom, or any number of Kurosawa movies, it does not have an accordion-like structure that can easily accomodate extended length with entertaining digressions and amusements, nor was it intended to have one. This puts it in danger of falling in with such endurance defiers as Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Theo Angelopoulos’s Ulysses Gaze, and Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite. (I’ve linked to positive reviews of all three on the grounds that the descriptions alone should be enough to turn people off of these horrors.)

When dealing with something whose duration has been stretched beyond common proportion, you have to come to terms with the decreased attention that’s paid to content and structure. It reminds me of a famous Morton Feldman quote:

My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things.

There are few directors who were masters at this kind of scale: Tarkovsky, Melville, and, I grudgingly admit, Eustache. He puts together a film that by the end of its time has achieved something that could not have been done in less time, even though individual scenes could have been swapped out or significantly changed to little overall effect. As Feldman suggests, this is an achievement in scale.

Just to give an idea of how stretched the scale is, here’s the plot summary from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review:

The movie recounts the activities over a few days of a dandyish French intellectual in his late 20s named Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who’s living with and supported by his lover, Marie (Bernadette Lafont); she’s in her mid-30s and runs a small boutique. In the first scene he borrows a neighbor’s car and tracks down a former girlfriend, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), who’s just started a new semester at the Sorbonne, and tries to persuade her to marry him, only to discover that she’s just agreed to marry someone else. (We and Alexandre briefly glimpse Gilberte with her husband, played by Eustache, toward the end of the film, in the liquor section of a department store.) After hanging out with an equally idle friend (Jacques Renard) at the Deux Magots cafe, Alexandre follows a young woman after she leaves a nearby table, asks for her phone number, and scores; the remainder of the film is devoted to his courting of her.

Her name is Veronika (Francoise Lebrun). She works as a hospital nurse, lives in a small room in the nurses’ quarters, goes to a lot of nightclubs, and is as compulsive about her promiscuity as Alexandre is about his idleness.

I have my problems with the film. The tale of a shallow bourgeois layabout, the older woman he leeches off of, and the promiscuous girl he falls for is sometimes insufferable and far from “deep.” The characters are exactly who they appear to be, and when an epiphany is forced into the girl’s mouth at the very end of the film, it’s acutely uncomfortable; the structure (or lack thereof) makes it seem unearned. This gives two alternatives: first (as Pauline Kael observed), that Veronica is speaking for the director and her epiphany is revealed truth; second, that like so much else in the film, it is shallow bullshit piped out by the characters.

It is only due to the scale that the second option even becomes possible. In any other reasonably-sized film, Veronika’s explosive speech would be a climax and a revelation, but coming as it does three-plus hours into this seemingly structureless film, it is more tired than it is climactic. The emotions are so violent that it could only feel as tired as it does had the audience lived with the characters long enough to grow comfortable with them, and beyond that, to grow tired of them. Perhaps Eustache is implying that it takes three hours just to exhaust–and to be exhausted by–such simple characters as these, and that any more complex characters could not be so fully exposed in such a short period of time. As with Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the film seeks to give the viewer an experience of the characters that is more than a voyeuristic gaze through a hazy window for a brief time. Proust used a massive canvas for some fairly shallow society types. Eustache only has three hours, so he narrows his scope considerably.

He is helped immeasurably by the actors. Leaud was born to play Alexandre, and Veronika in particular seems to display her shallow soul at all times, never hiding a thing. Neither ever goes against the grain of their character. Both give the impression that there is nothing to their physical and mental being beyond what is displayed about their characters in the film, and this is crucial to its effect.

I return to the word exhaustion. What Eustache shares with Proust (and even Beckett) is the ability to exhaust the possibilities of his material, such that at the end the exhaustion that the viewer feels is not that of boredom or frustration, but the sense that there is nothing left, such that even an emotional epiphany reveals nothing more than has already been presented. This is a major achievement, and it requires (“justifies” may be too strong a word) the duration that Eustache uses. Yes, Bresson achieves something of this, but he bypasses the realm of internal experience altogether to focus on surfaces. Maybe Melville is the closest approximation, with carefully circumscribed characters whose motivations are simple yet everpresent. Maybe this makes The Mother and the Whore the film that took the French new wave and treated it as an exhaustible genre.