The Mother and the Whore

La Maman et la putain

Director: Jean Eustache
Year: 1973
Country: France
Running time: 219 mins
Screenplay: Jean Eustache
Production co: Films du Losange/Elite Films/Cine Qua Non/Simar Films/VM Productions
Producer: Pierre Cottrell
Photography: Pierre Lhomme, Jacques Renard, Michel Cenet
Editors: Jean Eustache, Denise De Casabianca
Sound: Jean-Pierre Ruh, Paul Laine, Nara Kollery
In French with English subtitles

Alexandre: Jean-Pierre Léaud
Veronika: Françoise Lebrun
Marie: Bernadete Lafont
Gilberte: Isabelle Weingarten
Three-and-a-half hours of people talking about sex sounds like a recipe for boredom; in Eustache’s hands, it is anything but. There is no ‘explicitness’: the film is about attitudes to, and defences against, sex and the body. Using dialogue garnered entirely from real-life conversations and sticking entirely to a prepared script (no improvisation). Eustache has provided us with a ruthlessly sharp-eyed view of chic, supposedly liberated sexual relationships, revealing them to be no less a disaster area of tragic dimensions than their ‘straighter’ counterparts. Veronika (Lebrun) cripples herself by regarding herself entirely through male eyes. Alexandre (Léaud, playing a character eerily close to his standard screen persona) is revealed to be the victim of a greedy, self-regarding, and desperate chauvinism; Marie (the superb, strong Lafont) is less a fully delineated character, sadly allowed only two fierce rejoinders to Alexandre’s blind demands. Each of the three holds part of the ‘truth’ about their situation: none can put the pieces together. — Verina Glaessner, Time Out Film Guide

In the current issue of Film Comment, Harmony Korine names Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore ‘the greatest movie about love’. It’s easy to see how Korine would identify with Alexandre, the film’s fragile, romantic, passive-aggressive, logorrheic protagonist, whose flood of fantasized selves and others could not drown his fear of sex, death, and the end of cinema.

Made in 1972, this fairly autobiographical work (shot in the director’s own apartment) is full of à clef references to New Wave directors with whom Eustache felt bitterly competitive, and grounded in the malaise that followed May ’68. But it also shares and bares the anxiety about masculinity that fuels American films of the 70s from Carnal Knowledge to Taxi Driver, not to mention John Cassavetes’ oeuvre – an anxiety exacerbated by the so-called sexual-liberation movement and the subsequent rise of feminist consciousness. It’s no accident that during the first conversation Alexandre has with Veronika – the young nurse whom he tries to entice into a ménage à trois with Marie, his older, richer live-in girlfriend – he makes a disparaging remark about women’s lib… The Mother and the Whore is both epic and intimate, ethnographic in its cultural detail and subjective in its exposure of the raw nerves of body and psyche. It’s Eustache’s greatest cinematic achievement, though not his only significant one, as this near complete retrospective proves. — Amy Taubin, Village Voice, 1/11/00