Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité! Léaud! in Jean Eustache’s ‘The Mother and the Whore’

The year was 1968. The New Wave had been bookended in December 1967 with the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Weekend’ and it had been two years since François Truffaut had released a film in the archetypal cinematic stylings of the movement. French cinema was experiencing a transitory period influenced by imminent sociopolitical disorder, as President Charles de Gaulle  had moved from creating a ‘united Europe’ into amending French cultural discourse.

In Feburary, the regressive legislation of de Gaulle’s cultural minister and novelist Andrè Malraux angered local and international cinéastes when he attempted to fire popular cinema preservationist Henri Langlois. After two months of violence and petitions, Langlois was reinstated but this confrontation was merely a rehearsal for the student and worker demonstrations that were set to virtually shut down the country during the following month.  On May 18th, Jean-Luc Godard called a cancellation of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival to show solidarity with the rioting working class who stormed the Parisian streets searching for ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’.

Despite the bohemians and labourers leading some social change in May, de Gaulle maintained power and the revolution was concluded to be a failure. The anarchy of this turbulent period in French culture was epitomised in the opening shot of Truffaut’s 1968 film ‘Stolen Kisses’  reproducing the image of the locked Cinémathèque Française, signifying that French cinema had been forever altered.

Five years to the date in May 1973, Jean Eustache, a comrade of the Cahiers du cinéma’ writers and ardent observer of the abandoned revolution of May 68′, premiered his first feature ‘The Mother and the Whore’ at the Cannes Film Festival to divided critical acclaim. While the film makes terse reference to the cataclysmic events of 68′, it eulogises the disillusionment that was felt by an entire generation in the aftermath.

In 1973,  the notions of monogamy vs. polygamy as well as women’s suffrage were controversial concerns that were explored with sincerity by Eustache.  The film’s protagonist Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a retrogressive anarchist, who criticises the modern support of women’s rights and laments the failed revolution. He yearningly cerebrates upon May 68′, meditating on a morning in Saint-Michel where he observed an entire cafe wailing in unison after a tear gas grenade had fallen. In contrast, he views his current predicament with contempt, taking out his incompetence on Marie (Bernadette Lafont) and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun) through physical and psychological vilification. Eustache who is often labelled a ‘misogynist’ by dissenting critics, denounces Alexandre’s unpleasant ego, by portraying the two female characters as sensible by comparison. Marie and Veronika, are self sufficient and force Alexandre to be dependent on them both financially and romantically. Veronika’s famous “why shouldn’t women be able to say they want to fuck?” monologue is a exasperated attack on sexist men like Alexandre. She debases the traditionalist expectations of women by using profane language to proclaim that in a post-sexually revolutionised society, sex is no longer purely for the males pleasure and rebels against the conservative ideology of male domination as liberation.

Secondary to it’s position as a time capsule of the post 68′ waywardness, ‘The Mother and the Whore’ is also an elegy to the New Wave that influenced Eustache. While talking to a fourteen year old Jean-Pierre Léaud on the set of Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’,  he observed a madness beneath the surface of the young actors mannerisms that he one day hoped to unveil on celluloid. Léaud as an individual is the physical embodiment of the metaphysical New Wave spirit,  consistently modernising his previous acting roles throughout his six decade spanning career. Alexandre can be examined as the inverse of Léaud’s recurring Antoine Doinel character though both characters can be imagined to hold a paving stone in their hand during the demonstrations of 68′, their dispositions are dissimilar.  Doniel as we see him in 1970’s ‘Bed and Board’ is a endearing buffoon whose politics can be described as egalitarian. He sees himself as having benefited from the women’s suffrage and allows his spouse Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) to be the matriarch of the family, earning the bulk of the income by teaching violin to children while he finds casual employment artificially dyeing flowers. Despite his love for Christine however, he submits to lustful passions and has an affair with a Japanese woman Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer) though he appears to feel remorse for his immediate actions. This is in direct opposition to Alexandre who scorns at Marie and Veronika’s emancipation and views them as the supporting cast in his life, taking advantage of them for the financial security and carnal pleasures they can provide. Alexandre’s makes superficial observations while on a date with Veronika, discussing that he “may like a girl because she was in a Bresson film”, demonstrating to the audience again that he is only interested in women for what they can provide to him. Marie and Veronika while self-sustaining in their careers, fall back into patriarchal roles when Alexandre is present, completing chores that he is too incompetent to even begin.

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Eustache directed one more feature film after ‘The Mother and the Whore’ before dying by his own hand in 1981.  Despite his limited theatrical output, the structural dichotomy presented between the masculine and feminine characters in the film, continues to be embolden directors including Alex Ross Perry and Mia Hansen-Løve, more than four decades later.