Format: Internet video on laptop.
Once upon a time, there was a womanizing chauvinist named Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud). He wakes up next to his partner Marie (Bernadette Lafont), sees the time, and quickly gets dressed and leaves. As it turns out, Marie is little more than a sex partner; his heart truly belongs to Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten). It’s Gilberte who he wants to marry despite his live-in sex partner, but Gilberte has her own boyfriend who has asked her to marry him. She leaves him hanging and goes off, not committing to her new beau or to Alexandre. Almost in retaliation, he picks up a girl named Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), and bluntly admits this to Marie.
Welcome to Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore), a film that, were it better known, would be the template for hipsters the world over. There is something almost indescribably hipster about this film. Alexandre and his friend (Jacques Renard) are unemployed but still manage to find money to survive. They listen to unknown, vaguely disturbing music (the friend, for instance, is an aficionado of a German singer promoted by the Third Reich and evidently has a library of Nazi literature), steal a wheelchair because it’s a wheelchair, and otherwise do their best not to conform. Alexandre claims that his job is sitting in a café and reading. He also consistently wears two neckties at the same time, the ties bound together in a cross between a half-Windsor and an ascot. Christ, if he could somehow have an iPad and ride a fixie, he’d only need the handlebar moustache.
The film is about this strange little love quadrangle that turns into a triangle almost immediately as the desired Gilberte moves on with her life and marries her boyfriend, leaving Alexandre sort of in the cold. Sort of, because he’s still got Marie at home. He also encounters Veronika in a café and is entranced with her, deciding that he’s going to add her to his list of sexual conquests. She, at one point, lists off her own extensive list of sexual escapades, and the two begin an affair between them, all with the full knowledge of Marie, who may not be so faithful, either.
So, what we have here is a sexually free and open mutual bonking society. All of this comes from Alexandre’s philosophy, which appears to be a cobbled together slurry of ideas from Nietzsche, Sartre, and others. In his world, there is no purpose to anything other than himself. He openly mocks people on their way to work in the morning and does nothing himself but sit around in cafes drinking and reading. It’s evident that while he spends a lot of his time reading these weighty works of great thinkers, there’s not much penetrating his skull. He parrots the words of the philosophers without really understanding them at a deep level. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of a much more self-absorbed and serious version of the Kevin Kline character in A Fish Called Wanda.
I have no way to be sure, of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the themes Eustache was attempting to portray here was an inability to communicate. No one really talks to each other throughout the film. Instead, they talk at each other, or talk with other people present, but there are very few (if any) instances of actual communication between people. Alexandre, no matter the subject he believes he is discussing, is ultimately talking only about himself, and there’s also no indication that anyone is really listening to him.
All of this is well and good, I suppose, but I can’t get past the idea that I genuinely dislike a lot of this film. It’s an interesting idea for a film, I’ll grant, but that doesn’t mean that it’s one that I enjoyed spending time with. In fact, it got to the point where watching this on a series of 10-minute YouTube clips became a chore in and of itself. I’d finish one, sigh, and count how many I had left until I could move on to something that might actually be entertaining or interesting, or that wasn’t filled with such a spiritual malaise.
That, more than anything, is what I got from La Maman et la Putain. These characters—Alexandre, Veronika, and to a lesser extent Marie—live in a world of solipsism and arrogance, convinced of their own superiority for no reason other than that they have no reason. Spending time with these characters, especially Alexandre, is like spending an afternoon with privileged suburban teenagers who whine about how difficult life is and how their world is nothing but despair while living better than most of the population and having no real problems other than their upcoming trigonometry midterm and a possible blemish before the big dance. I’m happy to watch depressing films, or films in which characters face terrible struggles, but these people are frankly pathetic. Their struggles are self-induced and self-perpetuating, and I have no sympathy for or interest in them.
That may well have been Eustache’s intent here. In fact, I’d be surprised if it was not the intent of this film. That’s all well and good, but I got the point of this after thirty minutes and didn’t really need another three hours plus of this being hammered into my cranium. I get it—they’re selfish, arrogant, morally backwards, superficial creeps. Can we move on, please?
The sexual escapades of an arrogant chauvinist and the women who demand he love them exclusively sounds like a topic for daytime talk television, not a close-to-four-hour film. At half the length, it would have been tolerable, but for this stretch of time, it becomes irritating, then angering, and eventually a test of endurance.
Why to watch La Maman et la Putain: It’s one of the last great films of the French New Wave.
Why not to watch: It’s long on time and short on story.