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The Mother And The Whore

     Nowhere is the malaise and pessimism of post-1968 Paris, when the revolution was lost, mined so deeply as in Jean Eustache's 1973 classic, The Mother and the Whore, revived for the first time since its original release in a new, full-length, 215-minute print.

     Eustace begins by shredding the 1960s French New Wave: actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, the icon of exuberant French youth for his seminal roles in 60s Truffaut-Godard treasures (The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Masculine/Feminine), resurfaces here, a sour few years older, as Alexandre, a charmless, skirt-chasing, 1970s freeloader. Terminally unemployed, he reads Proust and listens to Weimar-era records, hangs out with a dubious, heavy-drinking, nameless friend (actor Jacques Renard) who devours books about the SS. Though cursing "women's lib," Alexandre spends his days prowling cafes (again, recognizable Truffaut/Godard terrain) for women to fall for intensely, to talk at interminably, to obsess about night and day, and occasionally to fuck.

     The sex talk, and there's lots of it, is astonishingly frank for 1973, and there's nudity. But the actual sex is off-putting (the first screw results in a pushed-in Tampax) or estranged (a threesome which never quite happens, because someone always resists, or someone attempts suicide). As for the title, the classic male-defined female schism isn't so clear. Is Alexandre's thirtyish live-in mistress, Marie (the wonderful Bernadette Lafont), the symbolic "mother," because she's the one waiting home for the film's psychologically arrested protagonist? Is his new girlfriend, Veronika (the Anais Nin-like Francoise Lebrun), a promiscuous nurse, the "whore"?

     In the most passionate soliloquy in a film of speechmaking, Veronika rejects completely the disparaging category of "whore," expressing pity instead for those, like herself, who have fucked themselves silly. Sex with true love, she says, is the only thing worthwhile, sex between lovers who are trying to have a baby.

     Is Veronika mouthing Eustache's secretly conservative, spiritual, sacramental message? Hardly. When an actual pregnancy is announced, a promise of marriage is followed by acute vomiting. A bleak postscript to this avowedly anti-transcendant film: Jean Eustache committed suicide in 1981.

GERALD PEARY
(The Boston Phoenix, March, 1998)

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