Mother Lode

Historically, the New Wave was just a tiny drop in the pool of film history, a fast and frantic three-year dash that began with the triumphant appearance of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows in 1959 and opened the door for more than 150 first-time directors before finally slowing down in 1962. In the course of those three years, Truffaut and his New Wave associates -- his Cahiers du Cinema colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, as well as kindred spirits and acquaintances like Alain Resnais and Jacques Demy -- would change not only the way movies were made but the way audiences thought about them.

In 1973, France was still recovering from the effects of a second revolution, the political one that had carried its people to the barricades and brought the country to a standstill for a few short but heady weeks in May 1968. These overwhelming and even contradictory ideas -- the feeling that society was changing and that new rules for behavior were being invented and old ones being tossed aside; the sense that cultural objects such as movies, books, music, philosophy could be felt as strongly as historical and material ones -- were still in the air when Jean Eustache made what might be the definitive account of post-New Wave, post-'68, post-everything society, The Mother and the Whore (New Yorker).

Making its long-awaited video debut (as far as I know, the film has never been screened publicly in St. Louis), Eustache's film is a haunting, disturbing and even irritating work but is by no means a simple one. Running more than three-and-a-half hours and filmed in black-and-white, the movie consists almost entirely of conversations among three people. It's indebted to the New Wave, perhaps most particularly to Eric Rohmer's 1969 film My Night at Maud's, a philosophical dialogue disguised as romantic drama, but the unresolved nature of the issues it raises -- and its continuing influence on young French filmmakers -- keeps it disturbingly contemporary. Indeed, the almost embarrassing frankness and raw emotion of the film transcend fashion and history. When the New Wave directors speculated on the cinema's ability to merge with everyday life (as in Truffaut's repeated question "Are movies more important than life?" in Day for Night or Godard's invocation of "the film that we wanted to make, and, more secretly, wanted to live" in Masculine-Feminine), this may have been what they had in mind.

Jean-Pierre Leaud, a New Wave icon by virtue of his recurring role as Truffaut's autobiographical hero Antoine Doinel and several collaborations with Godard (both of the quotations above are, in fact, spoken by Leaud), plays Alexandre, an immature, spoiled Parisian intellectual who is more comfortable dealing with abstract ideas than confronting real emotions. He lives with -- and is supported by -- Marie (Bernadette Lafont), though neither is exclusively interested in the other. Rejected by a former girlfriend, he meets Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), a compulsively promiscuous nurse. Though much of the film could be described as their love story, it's their tragic lack of a common ground, their sheer inability to penetrate the reserve of the other, that sets the drama in place.

To describe the plot in greater detail is unnecessary; The Mother and the Whore is about relationships that will never be settled, disputes that will never be solved, wounds that will never heal. Will any of these characters ever learn how to get what they want? Will they even know where to look? The title refers not to the two women or the roles they play in Alexandre's life -- or even to the roles he expects them to play. Rather, it's a measure of possible roles, of the traps of identity that are set before each character. Veronika may be most vulnerable to their influence; her tearful, pained monologue rejecting them is the film's most searing moment.

In some respects, The Mother and the Whore is about a generation -- or a society -- tricked by its own illusions. Alexandre, Marie and Veronika have learned how to see through romantic conventions but not how to replace them. They're trapped, victims of their own cleverness. Will they ever reach a satisfactory conclusion or find the definitive answer to the problem of their relationships? Eustache -- who committed suicide in 1983 -- raises all of these questions, but the film's bitterness comes from showing that there are no obvious answers.

POLE VAULT: In 1914, just five years after man first reached the South Pole, Sir Ernest Shackleton led 27 men on a grueling and heroic mission without equal in the history of polar exploration. His ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice for eight months before finally being crushed, leaving the men to travel on ice floes for another five months, after which Shackleton and a small crew set out on an 850-mile mission across water, land and up the side of an iceberg to find help. The adventure was recorded in South: Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (now available from Milestone Home and Video at 800-603-1104), a newly restored 1919 documentary that features images as breathtaking as they are eerie. Though it wanders off into travelogue toward the end, expedition member Frank Hurley's account depicts a world not quite like anything ever filmed before, a blend of boy's-book adventure and dreamlike fantasy. (For those truly fascinated by the poles, Milestone also offers the film in a boxed set with two more excellent exploration films, 90 South: With Scott to the Antarctic and With Byrd at the South Pole.)

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