Shot in black and white, so the eyes seem like scorch marks in pale, vulnerable skin, La Maman is a savage extension of the kind of student movie made in the 1960s. It's a triangle: a guy and two women, seen in cafes and on the streets of Paris, and in shabby apartments with mattresses on the floor next to stacks of LPs. The women got to undress in such films; there was more talk than action; the whole thing was filled with arrogant despair. Most were never finished - this one could have gone on for ever.
Alexandre is seemingly unemployed, an incessant talker (if only to shut others up), an intellectual poseur, a cruel softie - the part was written for Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was brazen or ironic enough to accept it and be his flagrant self. Alexandre lives with the older Marie (Bernadette Lafont), a boutique owner. But he meets Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), a wan-faced nurse, promiscuous, candid and lyrically blunt, a whore-saint consumed with disgust.
Not promising? Not ripe for three and a half hours? But La Maman is like a claustrophobic immolation with characters from Egon Schiele paintings, not so much naked and seductive as raw and wounded. This is a film about sex without erotic salvation. The sex is talked about and the talk is a virus that eats inside people's heads so that it becomes as insidious and demanding as booze and hope in the plays of O'Neill.
These are human creatures unable to extricate themselves from the mess of their own romantic and sexual urges, and helpless at keeping a reliable frontier between the two. The film is very French, very Parisian, and full of the assertive dismay of post-1968, but it is like Schiele or Strindberg, too - an uncompromising scream at marriage, infidelity, divorce, attempted suicide and all the damage that comes from desire.
No, it's not a date movie exactly, and nothing Julia Roberts will ever remake. It may be too painful and exhausting a tirade for people who have known such ordeals in real life. But the film begs to be revived, and surely its cult status will now be renewed. Shot in a month, on very little money, it was meticulously scripted, and it works because the three people are locked in a life-and-death struggle in which we are made helpless onlookers. You wonder at the personal resonance of the film for the actors and the director - Eustache, who never did anything anywhere near as good was dead a few years later, a suicide, after a fall that left him paralysed. He was an alcoholic and a career failure. Leaud has known periods of deep depression. I know - it sounds like something to miss. Take courage: it will only brand you for life.