ON LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN AND AGING
by Greg Gerke
I used to think that if a film was any good—lasting, worthy—it would come into my mind in the days after in a disturbing manner. But in the midst of multiple concussive shocks to the living, there’s a new light switch on my wall, and, the day after I finished this three-and-a-half-hour film by Jean Eustache I woke early and began to wonder how I would write about it, since it lacked for me more than it carried.
La Maman et la Putain is a film that might have been more impressive had I seen it in my loosey-goosey thirties, early in them. But I’m older, grayer, and I want to be etherized and stilled, like Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema does to me, or shaken—pushed to fall back or forward like Kubrick or Carlos Reygadas might do—I want something that gets into the bloodstream. This is not to say the film isn’t accomplished or more thoroughly engaging than almost every Hollywood film in the last decade—still, time has passed, and the physicality of calendar pages falling away has developed to the swiping in and out of smartphone apps, unfolding endless years. It’s a nearly fifty-year-old film—the emotions are true (love is bewitching, frustrating, and awing) but they are not tilled and patterned by an older soul—Jean Eustache was thirty-three and thirty-four when he made it. Eric Rohmer was nearly twenty years older when My Night at Maud’s came out—and it had been a scenario he’d shepherded for years, at one time writing it in prose form, along with the other Moral Tales. But does my coming upon high rough in Eustache’s film have to do with years? One could go to John Cassavetes (and for some reason Pauline Kael compared the two, wrongly, when the film came out—only the basic ligaments are the same) who is quite knowing about young love in Shadows, but incredibly fecund on many ages in Faces and the films after it. Yes, people sit and talk and make merry and get maddening in both films, but there are much different striations in Faces and Husbands—the films Kael would have been thinking of. Just as in Rohmer, there is the presence of some other life—children, jobs, outward society—but in La Maman there is only the isolated world of someone barely thirty and probably under, the cafe life, the whim of going to see friends in London for a few days, and freelance fucking in a world where smoking and the choice of the next record to put on are just about the most pressing issues. William Logan described the sum of Louise Gluck’s book Averno with the line: “You’re glad to shut this airless book and look at the dumb world outside, a blackbird taking up turf from an old doormat, two roofers squatting on broken slates—all that life excluded from a book like this. But a book like this can unsettle a life like that.” This is true in the case of the film, and it might have been Eustache’s ghostly aim, but the art needs a second wind after the unsettling.
The first three hours of this film are wonderful, the minutes pass by at a stately pace, what the characters say is never uninteresting, and Jean-Pierre Léaud gets away from that “I’m acting” persona that fills many frames of his best known films. Yet, in the the final thirty minutes there is a fault in the strata and the character Veronica (the main character’s new love) gives a long, close to ten-minute monologue about her feelings (“I’ve been fucked like a whore. But you know, I think some day a man will come along and will love me, and will make me a baby, out of love”), though it rang hollow for me. I don’t believe her tears—or the actress’s. Certainly, of the three main characters she is the least sympathetic and the most hidden and I would have liked her to stay that way, so I would not have to recast my mere dislike as newly shaped by incredulity. There is so much fleeting love and lust and between the people, that it might have seemed one needed a judge to intervene and decide their path for them. Eustache seems to have turned his back on the unsettling in the last thirty minutes that he’d made a monument to for three hours, but I don’t think this was his point—I wonder if he just didn’t have a good ending for the film. So Eustache’s characters pass through many temporary states in the last thirty minutes—and one tries to kill herself (recall the overdose of Lynn Carlin in Faces after she sleeps with another man) but this brief diversion—not presented as a serious attempt and quickly rectified—doesn’t have the power of that one in Cassavetes’s film because it doesn’t have the duration and the anxiety that the woman might be dead or on her way. This disconnect sometimes happens in otherwise great films—the last thirty to forty minutes of There Will Be Blood is so at odds with what comes before, I almost hope one day a new version will magically drop with Anderson keeping the false brother alive a little longer and ending with that, since he is a worthy opponent of the force Daniel Plainview. Emerson: “Our moods do not believe in one another”—and it turns out he was describing a percentage of French people, too. More of Veronika’s words (“Love is nothing unless you want to make a baby together. If you want that, you feel you love each other. A couple that doesn’t want a baby is no couple, it’s shit, it’s anything, dust..”) stay in shallow water. If anyone should have been talking it should have been Leaud, but I can understand—he is a man and he really doesn’t understand what is going on aside from the ego stroke of two women giving themselves to him. In Burning the Days, James Salter aptly relayed that the film was “an impure work less interesting than its title.”
I don’t particularly like to worm through art this way, but as I get older and destinies change, the fleeting feelings of youth get yawned at in memory. Poet Eugenio Montale writes in “Sorapis, 40 Year Ago”:
And then I led you by the hand to the summit,
to an empty hut. That was our Lake,
a few spans of water, two lives
too young to be old, and too old
to feel themselves young.
It was then that we discovered what age
means; it has nothing to do with time,
it is something which makes us say
we are here, a miracle that
cannot be repeated. By contrast
youth is the vilest of all illusions.
Perhaps it isn’t age but content and form, because they are yin and yang, but still shimmering coevals of age. To stay local, Jacques Rivette (more an age-mate of Eustache than Rohmer) and his L’Amour Fou pushes into my head as something much weightier because Rivette uses the regard of the camera more than dialogue in his similar look at relationships and obsession. The man in that film has a career (he’s a theatrical director) providing a buffer and a kindling to the couple’s disintegration, yet Rivette wisely only shows his girlfriend seeing him talk to other women, nothing more. Over the course of four hours, she grows tired of his riddles and wants to leave—this is what brings him down. He goes mad, and one day, together, they begin to destroy all the belongings in their apartment—in the end she still leaves him. He tries to go back to work but is disturbed and his walk on the street to the theater ends with him coming upon his image in a mirrored arcade. He looks in at this person (himself) and eventually reverses course. Without him, theatre rehearsals continue with children’s cries in the background—what is missing for the couple is made stronger by letting the audience deduce instead of being lectured to via Veronika’s speech. That moment, a slight complement to the end of Faces, where another childless couple starts cleaning up, signaling they will stay together, is the type of oceanic ending La Maman lacks. Eustache’s characters don’t have another mode to go to—they are sprawled on the kitchen floor.
Andrei Tarkovsky said there are two kinds of filmmakers: those who mimic and recreate the world and those who create their own world. I won’t go back to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Boogie Nights because they were made by a person who didn’t know enough about the life that was his subject—though I’ll endlessly watch The Master and Inherent Vice. How did he know about an old and hardened hit man to make Hard-Eight come off as well as it did, creating the world as we know it?— David Mamet’s House of Games and various other films. A great artist should also be good at imitation (young Picasso studying and copying Cézanne) for that is how one learns and readies oneself to create one’s own world: the fade in to the three broken hills amid Johnny Greenwood’s music in There Will Be Blood. ♦
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories were both published by Splice. Zerogram Press released a new and expanded version of See What I See in 2021. He also edits the journal: Socrates on the Beach.