THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (Jean Eustache, 1973)

By the time a guy realizes he is in love, the woman has decided she doesn’t love him. — Alexandre, referring to Gilberte

Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud, tremendous) is enamored of three women: current partner Marie, former partner Gilberte, and Veronika, whom he picks up one day and tells Marie about it because, he says, “I can’t keep anything from you.” Actually, Marie loves Alexandre more than he loves her, and Alexandre desperately wants to believe he and Gilberte might come together again sometime in the future. He himself relates this wish to the loss of political hopefulness among the French Left following May 1968. Alexandre illustrates lines by nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Arnold: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.”
     Writer-director Jean Eustache’s script is brilliant, hilarious. For 220 minutes his La maman et la putain thoroughly engages with its loose-ended young lives. Alexandre, despite a disadvantaged background, is learned, intellectual; he explains, he stole books as a child because poverty shouldn’t limit anyone’s education. Alexandre doesn’t work. Veronika, a nurse, is proud of her salty language and forthright discussions of sex. She anticipates the end of a relationship.
     In a great passage, Alexandre and Veronika are walking at night to the Seine—“the water,” Veronika, who is Polish, calls it. She tells him she could walk with him all night. Earlier, at a restaurant, Alexandre began their date by monologuing, pontificating; Veronika finally joined in, gently asserting herself; and then the two connected, interacted, shared. We get to see the nervous date become a shared, breathing, equal thing.
     Eustache’s film is tragic, its primarily lighthearted tone making it all the more heartrending, and very raw in portraying its characters’ sex lives and feelings. Its style resembles cinéma-vérité.

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