Review: The Mother and the Whore

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The Mother and the Whore is a sort of New Wave marathon, a three-and-a-half-hour return to the French cinema of the Sixties as well as to the generation of youth with which it was often concerned. Here that generation has reached the Seventies (and its own thirties) and is finding, once more, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Jean-Pierre Léaud, that ever-evolving icon of the New Wave, is at the center of the action as an intelligent young Parisian making a career out of post-adolescence with long talks and occasional pickups in sidewalk cafés and other Left Bank environs. At the outset, Alexandre (Léaud) is living with, and apparently off, a boutique operator (Bernadette Lafont), while also making attempts at reconciliation with a previous lover (Isabel Weingarten). Soon, though, he begins a third and increasingly complex relationship with a Polish nurse (Françoise LeBrun) and eventually finds himself bedded down with both LeBrun and Lafont in the latter’s apartment. The three-way relationship undergoes a series of unresolved convulsions which focus increasing attention on Veronika (LeBrun), whose wearily selfconscious mixture of warm allure and abrupt despair perhaps make her both the mother and the whore of the title.

In the course of all this, writer-director Jean Eustache creates a set of meticulously observed character studies, with considerable play given to the spontaneous, lyrically inconsistent psychology which distinguishes so many New Wave characterizations. But if the film’s people are tender and erratic in ways that evoke Truffaut and Godard, its calm pace, its expressive fades, its black-and-white austerity and its extended and engrossing conversations often recall Rohmer, Rivette and even Bresson. Eustache seems calmly aware of all this—as when he has Alexandre repeat a bed-making joke that Léaud once did for Godard, with Alexandre explaining that he learned it from a movie. (In an obscure moment of Truffaut’s Bed and Board, Léaud steps partway out of character to call Eustache on the phone and tell him that Antoine Doinel has become a father.)

Movie awareness is an important aspect of the milieu depicted, especially with the Léaud character. But the appeal of The Mother and the Whore derives largely from the interest generated in and around its people. Despite troubling lapses (a key speech, in long take, that repeats far too much; a blatant sexist streak in Alexandre which seems too oddly divorced from the character’s subtleties), the film achieves a remarkable intimacy and a relentless, low-keyed liveliness which make its 215 minutes seem entirely well-spent. The characterizations move through a continuing stream of day-to-day particulars (the click of a telephone, the light of a small apartment, the taste of liquor, this or that LP, this or that scarf, sleeping on the floor, the frowsy side of every bedroom scene that ever was, the virtual tangibility of time in the space before the next emotional detour, etc., etc.) and the cumulative effect is impressive. Eustache’s film is not the most inspired of the Seventies, but it is a movie in which the director’s modesty and patience before his subject reward us with a deeply felt meditation on a generation. At the very least, The Mother and the Whore is a ceaselessly fascinating view of “liberated” moderns struggling with ancient human failings.

Copyright © 1974 Peter Hogue

THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE
Screenplay and Direction: Jean Eustache. Cinematography: Pierre L’Homme.
The Players: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Bernadette Lafont, Françoise LeBrun, Isabel Weingarten.