Monday, September 26, 2016

The Favorites - The Mother and the Whore (#42)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Mother and the Whore (1973/France/dir. Jean Eustache) appeared at #42 on my original list.

What it is • We meet Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young man in early seventies France, as he wakes up next to an unidentified woman and tiptoes out of the room without waking her up. Downstairs, he knocks on another door and asks a different woman if he can borrow her car. She agrees amiably, as if this happens all the time, and Alexandre is off to a cafe to browse for future conquests (including an ex-lover to whom he professes wounded, undying adoration; we - and ultimately she - see right through him). Alexandre doesn't appear to have a job. He lives with Marie (Bernadette Lafont), a shopkeeper who fulfills "the mother" role of the title (at times), taking care of him financially and willing to give him a tongue-lashing whenever he attempts to bullshit her. Early in the film, he meets Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), "the whore" of the title (again, ambivalently and more than a bit ironically). She is not literally a prostitute, and so the moniker (which she denies) is surprising in an age of supposed sexual liberation. She is a Polish emigre and hardworking nurse whose very casual promiscuity initially appears as frank and unapologetic as Alexandre's (and a good deal more honest). However, even more than the others, a deep pain reveals itself with time. These three characters intersect before Eustache's casual camera, in mostly unadorned rooms (Veronika's hospital grotto is one of the loneliest and most simply evocative I've seen in a movie) or bustling cafes (with the buzz of real-life conversation surrounding the actors). The film is almost entirely composed of their conversations, carried mostly by the mile-a-minute Alexandre. Its minimalistic content and lengthy form (close to four hours) suggest something perverse and uncinematic, yet The Mother and the Whore is utterly captivating, one of the most celebrated films of the seventies. It really has to be seen to be understood.

Why I like it •
There are plenty of reasons I shouldn't. Alexandre is kind of despicable, a staggeringly selfish individual whose arrogance comes with the requisite touch of brooding self-pity. I love visceral, uber-cinematic movies and am weary of "indie films" that consist of couples navel-gazing for two hours, where it seems like the filmmakers really wanted to make a play but somehow convinced themselves they actually wanted to make a movie. This is particularly true when the characters inhabit a sequestered, lackadaisical world severed from any larger sense of reality (usually these types of films take place in the higher echelons of New York/Long Island) - the type of milieu that my brief excursions into contemporary literature suggest are all too common there too. And yet, I can be a sucker for this sort of material on the rare occasions when it is done exceedingly well - My Dinner with Andre, Funny Ha Ha, Metropolitan. The Mother and the Whore is my favorite example. Alexandre is played by Leaud, who may be the most watchable actor of all time: every eccentric expression or gesture is at once funny, absurd, and affecting. Alexandre is charming in spite of himself, and not in an easy, rougish way (Lafont and Lebrun are also captivating as very different characters, who resist type to become unique individuals). Somehow the simplicity of the film seems extremely cinematic, if perversely so; maybe it's the black-and-white film stock or the movie-star faces (in a very Gallic sense) of Leaud and Leafont - with Lebrun's luminous visage something else entirely, out of Botticelli. And while the characters tumble around in their little corner of the universe, the film conveys a mournful sense of a larger, transcendent reality passed by, like a cloud drifting lazily but irreversibly toward the horizon. That cloud is, implicitly and occasionally explicity, May '68 (as well as the entire decade which led up to that climax, and the year or two afterwards in which its promise still seemed possible to re-attain). The characters are variously apolitical, cynical, or downright reactionary in their rejection of revolutionary idealism but, like the most memorable private eyes in noir, they appear to have been believers once upon a time. Watched again in an era when youthful political fervor is growing once again, the film's resigned, bitter indifference feels not only poignant but ironic, and perhaps a little ominous.

More from me • A clip appears at 0:33 in "Welcome to the Arthouse", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. Although I didn't review the film on this site, I did write down my first reaction to the film six years ago, under a review on Wonders in the Dark.

How you can see it • This is unfortunately hard to see. It's not available anywhere for streaming or digital rental, and the only hard copy I can find is a VHS on Amazon - for $75. Keep your eyes peeled.

What do you think? • Do you generally enjoy dialogue-heavy films - and if not, is this an exception? Does Eustache's sensibility remind you of Cassavetes? When you saw the film, did you think at all of the legacy of the French New Wave (of which Leaud and Lafont were major early stars) or May '68, or did you take it entirely on its own terms as a self-contained story/character study?

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