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Pacific Film Archive presents French film maker

Peter CrimminsSpecial to the Daily Planet
Saturday November 18, 2000

Among the luminaries of French Nouvelle Vague-era film makers that buffs can instantly recite – Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol – there were many less popular artists informing that heady time.  

Jean Eustache is one such figure, whose work is getting a rare American retrospective at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive in the next three Saturdays. 

To even the most fervent American fan of French film, Eustache may have seemed like a one-hit wonder, his claim to fame being his 1973 “La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore)” screening Nov. 25.  

Very few films of his were ever printed with English subtitles, which may be one reason for his obscurity. Another may be his films are notoriously “difficult.” 

“The reaction was really controversial. Some people hate his stuff. (They said) this stuff is ridiculous, it’s trash, it makes no sense.” said Professor Emeritus Bertrand Augst at UC Berkeley. “And other people said, ‘“The Mother and the Whore” is the greatest French film of the ’70s.’ ” 

Or more precisely, “ ‘The Mother and the Whore’ stands as the most insightful, ironic inscription of how post- 1968 gender and sexual relations were working out in Paris in the early 1970s,” Lisa Katzman wrote in the March 1999 issue of Film Comment magazine. 

A duality exists even in Eustache’s own explanations of his work.  

The filmmaker – who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 43 – had visited the Pacific Film Archive in 1975 with a print of his “Mes petites amoureuses (My Little Loves)” that screens Nov. 18.  

He said in an interview at the time “it is necessary to render one’s personality akin to a mirror in such a way that reality reflects itself in it.”  

And later, in speaking about his film’s relationship to its audience, “It is my most difficult task to keep the spectator in his place, to make sure that he has nothing to do with the people in the film.” 

His admitted distance from the characters in his films is one reason many people don’t have as warm feelings for Eustache as, say, Truffaut and his Antoine Doinel.  

But like the influential Robert Bresson – to whom Eustache is often compared – the meticulously calculated distancing is meant to examine a metaphysical plane.  

And that plane is rooted in the physical, via a slaughtered pig (“Le Cochon”) or a toilet peephole (“Une sale Histoire”) or a Bosch painting (“Le Jardin des delices de Jerome Bosch”), all screening Dec. 2.  

“In almost all my films, my characters are socially very low, which enables the metaphysical problem to pass through the social problems of poverty and misery. They are intricately enmeshed,” Eustache again, speaking with Dan Yakir in 1977. 

His conceptual rigor is matched by his technical virtuosity.  

Particularly with sound, and making “the ears see.”  

“There is this façade of neutrality and distance and non-involvement,” said Professor Augst, "and at the same time there is this extremely feverish manipulation of the medium. There is constantly play with ideas of how to connect some sounds with other sounds.” 

Seeking the motivation for Eustache's formal discipline and choice of subjects, some critics look to Eustache's proletariat background. He came to Paris from a small village in southwestern  

France named Pessac, and, with little formal education, voraciously taught himself the art of film at the two pillars of New Wave cinema: screenings at Cinematheque Francais and heated debates at the magazine Cahiers du cinema. 

Writing in the September 2000 issue of Film Comment, Luc Moullet – himself a minor New Wave filmmaker and critic – suggested Eustache’s humble beginnings shaped his cinema sensibilities.  

“His experience of and respect for manual labor served him well when he worked as an editor, on his own films, Rivette's or mine.” 

The proof, whatever can be determined, is in the pudding, and in 1975 Eustache offered his own coda for the work he would leave behind: 

“I don’t claim to have any idea: the only intention of the film is the film itself.”