La Maman et la Putain: The Greatest Film You May Never See

In the streaming-obsessed all-you-can-eat digital world we live in, there are few films we cannot watch one way or another; we can drown in the endless catalogues of  Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Kanopy, Criterion, or (god forbid) you buy something on iTunes—or even worse, DVD. With the ability to watch on TVs, laptops, and phones, we have access to much of film history at our fingertips. But with that, we often miss out on the experience of seeing films on analogue film, on the big screen.

There’s one film that holds a particular notoriety for never having made the digital transition: Jean Eustache’s 1972 masterpiece, La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore). Eustache’s son, who currently holds the copyright, refuses to make any sort of distributional deal to digitize or put it on DVD. Though screenings are rare, this past weekend at the Whitney Humanities Center, the annual European Film Conference screened a beautiful print of the film in its entirety: all three hours and forty minutes. It is a film meant to be watched sparingly—and solely in the cinema.

La Maman et la Putain tells the story of a young man, Alexandre, played by the illustrious Jean-Pierre Leaud and a ménage-à-trois in which he finds himself inevitably stuck. He conveniently lives and sleeps with an older woman, Marie, although he finds himself falling for Veronika, a young nurse whom he meets after a shared smile at a café. Leaud plays his usual character of a young, broke pseudo-intellectual, charming women with records of Mozart, recitations of Baudelaire, and his tic of combing his hand through his hair. With incredibly dense and heavy dialogue, most conversations revolve around graphic intonations of sex, love, or suicide. 

References to literature, music, and film are woven throughout, both celebrating and signaling an end to the French New Wave. It is essential to frame the film in the dissolution of the ’60s and, specifically, the fallout of the France’s May ’68 riots; Alexandre’s contempt of society and his conservative-bent frustrations reflect a depressed morality of the leftists’ failed revolution. Fascist and communist jokes and rants of political angst permeate. Though the film is drawn out in length, it is unequivocally intimate in its exploration, tragic and honest, of each character’s inner psyche. Leaud plays Eustache himself, and Veronika and Marie play Eustache’s former lovers; the film is heavily autobiographical. 

It is essential to mention, as tragic as it is, that after viewing the final cut of the film, Eustache’s real girlfriend, whom the character of Veronika is based on, took her own life. She left a note to Eustache saying, “The film is sublime; don’t change a thing.” Eustache would take his own life nine years later. 

Eustache dwells in the misfit jigsaw pieces of his own truth and finds hints of beauty, laughter, and music in the darkness of his world—yet the film does not sentimentalize or create nostalgia for the pangs of love, sex, or depression. It is painfully real. At one of the film’s most striking moments, Alexandre and Veronika sit by the bank of the Seine about to make love, but Alexandre hesitates, looks back towards the camera and says, “I get the feeling we’re being watched.” Veronika asks by whom, and he responds, “By voyeurs.” We can’t help but feel the pained self-reflexivity of the moment: Eustache lets us peer into the tragedy of his own story. To watch a film flicker, to see it in a cinema, is to watch how it can pierce into reality, into us; we may be the voyeurs of Eustache’s loves and sufferings—yet in between each frame of film, there in the darkness lies a clarity, a truth, and in those moments, he shows us what cinema is meant to be.

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