Film: Angry young man of French cinema

`La Maman et la Putain', a classic of 1973, is an essay on male emotional immaturity. Chris Darke looks back

This will do as a thumbnail sketch of any number of young males in French cinema: "He doesn't give a damn, spends his time having sex, going to bistros and reading. His days, I think, are full. Only he isn't happy."

It is the director Jean Eustache's description of Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), the principal character in his 1973 film La Maman et la Putain ("The Mother and the Whore").

From the nouvelle vague works of Truffaut and Godard, right up to recent films such as Arnaud Desplechin's Ma Vie Sexuelle, the solipsistic, over- cultivated, emotionally anguished young male has been a mainstay of French auteur cinema.

In La Maman et la Putain, Eustache made the defining work of the genre. A three-and-a-half-hour black-and-white epic, Eustache's film takes autobiographical self-flagellation to the extreme; he himself has admitted that "the films I have made are as autobiographical as fiction can be."

The narrative is slim; Alexandre is a feckless young dandy who lives with an older woman, Marie (Bernadette Lafont), a dress-shop owner, the "mother" of the title. Having split up with a girlfriend, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), he picks up a promiscuous young nurse, Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), the "whore" of the title. A menage a trois slowly evolves, but with none of the bittersweet romanticism of Truffaut's Jules et Jim, which was a clear model for Eustache's film. The characters' emotional sores are masochistically scratched by Eustache's poison pen.

Eustache wrote the film for Leaud. He said: "I felt he could go further than he did in the films of Truffaut and Godard; I sense there was potential in him for a certain madness that he didn't express in their films."

The madness here derives from Alexandre's inability to commit to a single woman, which Eustache sums up straightforwardly: "It's the story of a guy who's been left by a woman and who decides that the next one won't leave him. Alexandre makes a monster who will crush him. When Gilberte leaves him, at the opening, he goes and creates Veronika to overcome this loss." Leaud's monologues alternate between splenetic self-justifications, philosophical tirades and curiously nostalgic reminiscences of childhood. The women - talked at, cajoled and coerced by his verbosity - evade him, escape his insistence. The final image of the film is a telling one; Veronika, possibly pregnant with Alexandre's child, throwing up in her cramped room, physically expelling all the words that have been hurled at her throughout the film.

While it would be interesting to consider the film's connection with the current pop-cultural fascination with Seventies kitsch, the more significant historical influence is that of May '68. In fact, the re-release of La Maman could be seen as an indication that the 30th anniversary of les evenements is upon us. But here, the battleground has relocated from the barricades to the bedroom. At one moment in the film, Alexandre recounts a scene he witnessed during the events of May. The police had teargassed some demonstrators who crowd into a cafe and he tells, with a certain wonder in his voice, of how he saw the "beautiful" sight of a cafe packed with people weeping. "A crack opened up in reality," he says.

Eustache's film is, in some respects, an account of the aftermath of May '68, of what happened after that glimpse of another reality had closed down, leaving its participants with the reality of their emotional and sexual lives to deal with.

The film's itinerary is an equally claustrophobic tour of apartments, cafe terraces and parks that Eustache films with forbidding austerity.

Although Eustache made only seven films in 19 years, La Maman stands as the epitome and model of the style of French film-making often dubbed intimiste, restrained in style and acutely concerned with the personal and social lives of the young.

When the film was released in France, it was taxed with being reactionary and misogynist, one commentator seeing in it "the panicked revulsion of men faced with the liberation of women". From this supposedly post-feminist distance, it appears more straightforwardly misanthropic than misogynist. Its intensity has waned little in the intervening 25 years; if anything, the monomaniacal psychodramatic focus has accumulated a density that makes it an invigoratingly uncomfortable experience - a cathartic viewing for anyone emerging from a broken relationship.

It was a film mired in tragedy. The woman on whom Veronika was based committed suicide after the film's premiere and Eustache was said never to have been the same again. In November 1981, at the age of 42, partially paralysed after an accident, Eustache himself committed suicide. His last words were a letter written to the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. "Have I something ahead of me now? If so, it doesn't interest me much. I have often hoped for a new awakening, to be reborn, to experience anew the joys, the pains and everything, everything. Today I believe that this awakening is too great or too dangerous for the man I am. The opening that gives on to bliss that comes to me in my dreams I can only take to be death."

`La Maman et la Putain' opens at the Renoir Cinema, Brunswick Square, London WC1, on 27 February.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

    Java/Calypso Developer

    £600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, ...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Senior Marine / Shipping Solicitor - South Coast

    Highly Competitive Package: Austen Lloyd: SOUTH COAST - MARINE / SHIPPING Th...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment