In an interview given on the eve of the 26th Cannes Film Festival in May 1973, Jean Eustache voiced his frustration at the reception of his work and his troubled relationship with the film industry in France.
‘Although my films have always been favourably received by the critics, they have never touched the wider public - apart from La Rosière de Pessac which was made for TV.’ Later that month, Eustache presented his first feature film La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and The Whore) at Cannes where it won the Grand Prix, beating competition from films such as Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!
Described by many critics as the apex of 1970s French cinema, La Maman et la Putain is about ‘the lost children of May 68’. Its minimalist, monochrome 215 minutes focus on the relationship between Aléxandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and the women in his life. When asked about the naturalism of the film, Eustache was clear: ‘Natural - of course not! What matters for me is, on the contrary, artifice, theatricality. I forced the characters to speak in an artificial way to arrive at a reality of cinema and not to a semblance of realism.’
The label of naturalism is one which Eustache always refused, despite various attempts to include him in ‘le nouveau naturalisme’ (‘The New Naturalism’) a movement concocted by critics in the mid-1970s which was also said to include directors such as Maurice Pialat, Jacques Doillion and Pascal Thomas. The inclusion of Eustache in what was, in reality, an incredibly diverse pool of filmmakers was based on a superficial consideration of his subject matter rather than close analysis of the films themselves. Eustache was nonetheless a great admirer of the films of Pialat, placing his work far above the vast majority of post-68 French film. Furthermore, what Eustache lamented of his own work, seemed to also apply to that of Pialat. ‘It seems that a creative cinema, one which stimulates, even when it is supported by critics, is rejected by the public.’
Born in Pessac in 1938, Eustache was brought up by his grandmother and later moved to Narbonne where he worked in the building trade and on the railways. In 1957, he moved to Paris, looking for opportunities to break into filmmaking. He then met his wife, a secretary at Cahiers du Cinéma, and soon became acquainted with some of the leading lights of the celebrated journal, in particular Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut. An avid cinephile from a young age, Eustache admired greatly the work of Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi and Carl Theodor Dreyer. He worked as film editor on several projects including Jacques Rivette’s Cinéastes de Notre Temps documentary on Renoir in 1967. By this time, Eustache had made his first short films, Du côte de Robinson (1963) and Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes)(1966). Intended to be screened together under the title Les Mauvais Frequentations (Bad Company), the films were strongly autobiographical, focusing on the lives of working-class youths. With these early works, Eustache received the support and encouragement of the Cahiers group with the second film also marking the director’s first collaboration with Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of the iconic figures of the French New Wave. Eustache then turned to documentary to make La Rosière de Pessac in 1968, a chronicle of the annual election of the most virtuous girl in Pessac (he would return to the subject a decade later in a follow-up film). In 1970, he made Le Cochon (The Pig) with Jean-Pierre Barjol, a direct cinema documentary on the process of pig slaughter on a provincial farm. The following year, Eustache broke away from the observational approach of his earlier documentaries to make Numéro Zéro, a two-hour interview with his grandmother Odette.
‘With all the films I have made’ the director admitted in 1978, ‘I felt a strong need to make them. So strong was this need that I often sacrificed quality in order to get them made.’ Moving from fiction to documentary, from short to feature-length, Eustache found it increasingly difficult to attract audiences, his films often becoming victims of the machinery of film distribution. When asked about the varying length of his work, the director likened himself to a writer rather than a filmmaker. ‘Nobody stops a novelist writing a novel of 1,000 pages’ he remarked ‘just as they don’t stop him writing a short story of only a few pages […] I let my films breathe, they all have a natural duration.’
In 1973, Eustache made La Maman et la Putain, the film for which he is most famous and undoubtedly a pivotal work in the history of French cinema. It was also the film that introduced him to a wider audience. He followed it up with his second feature Mes Petites Amoureuses (My Little Loves)(1974) – one of the great films on adolescence, the equal of Truffaut’s New Wave classic Les Quatre-Cent Coups (The 400 Blows)(1959). Eustache had intended to make the film more than a decade earlier but it was only the success of La Maman et la Putain which finally allowed him to go into production. He later returned to the short film with Un Sale Histoire (A Dirty Story) in 1977. A fascinating hybrid of fiction and documentary, the story of the title is told twice, by actor Michel Lonsdale and by Eustache’s friend Jean-Noël Picq.
Despite the favourable response to his first feature films, Eustache continued to find himself frustrated by the workings of the film industry and he remained a marginal figure. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma in 1978, he called himself ‘a citizen of a land occupied by strange forces’. ‘This profession doesn’t allow me to be free’ he continued, ‘and I don’t know how long this situation will last. I know for sure that I am in a tunnel, I feel it physically.’
Eustache committed suicide in 1981. He was 43 years old. The most eloquent tribute was paid to him by Serge Daney. ‘Eustache held on to life by a small number of threads’ he wrote, ‘One of these was his passion for cinema […] We thought these threads were unbreakable. We were wrong.’
The Jean Eustache retrospective is showing as part of the French Film Festival 2009 from Sat 14-Sun 29 Nov.