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Memphis Flyer Video Voyeur

What happens when human nature collides with love and sex?

By Chris Herrington

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

"The Mother and the Whore" directed by Jean Eustache (New Yorker)

Arriving on home video for the first time, Jean Eustache's talky, despairing 215-minute meditation on sex, love, narcissism, and immobility may not be anyone's idea of a casual Sunday-night rental, but it might be one of the most important films of the Seventies. The Mother and the Whore (1974) is absorbing, depressing, exhausting, and unforgettable -- and barely a footnote in most film histories, though hopefully the brief theatrical revival earlier this year and now a widespread video release will change that.

Shot in black-and-white and in 16 millimeter, the film's plot is bare-bones. It concerns the romantic entanglements among three young Parisians. Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud -- the New Wave poster boy who debuted as an adolescent with the lead role in Francois Truffault's The 400 Blows) is a shiftless professional Bohemian in his late 20s who lives with, and is supported by, an older girlfriend, boutique owner Marie (Bernadette Lafont). They have an "open" relationship, though an understandably tense one, and one founded on a double standard. Alexandre doesn't handle the prospect of Marie with other men as well as she copes with his dalliances.

Early in the film, Alexandre meets Veronika (Francoise Lebrun -- a non-actor who reprises a role she played in life as Eustache's girlfriend) outside of a cafe. She's a young nurse who takes her promiscuity as seriously as Alexandre takes his idleness, and the bulk of the film centers on their courtship. Eventually the three make a few unsuccessful attempts at a sexual menage-a-trois until Marie ends the arrangement with a suicide attempt and the film climaxes with a long, tearful monologue from Veronika about the difference between love and sex (and loving sex).

The Mother and the Whore has a lot in common with Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating, another epic-length 1974 French film set in the mileau of post-Sixties Parisian cafe culture. Celine and Julie Go Boating was also more rumor than reality for most film buffs until finally debuting on video a couple of years ago, and Eustache was a protege of Rivette. If these two films are companion pieces, the differences are instructive. Coming at the tail-end of the French New Wave, Celine and Julie Go Boating (a brilliant commentary on cinema itself) feels like a final flowering of the movement and the last glorious gasp of Sixties optimism, but The Mother and the Whore feels like the nail in the coffin -- a New Wave Altamont.

I'll confess that I prefer the joyful Celine and Julie Go Boating (to these eyes one of the medium's true masterpieces) to the seemingly defeatist The Mother and the Whore (Eustache committed suicide in 1981, in his early forties), but one still has to confront the possibility that the collapse of collective will and hope signified by this film may have been not only truer to its moment (which I take on good authority since I was in diapers at the time), but also more pertinent to the social reality we still live in: the communal and political impulses of the Sixties as an object of derision, solipsism, and self-regard triumphant.


"Unmade Beds" directed by Nicholas Barker (New Yorker)

Unmade Beds is one of the more interesting formal experiments to emerge in recent years. A portrait of four single, heterosexual New Yorkers and their pursuit of love or sex (or even both), it isn't quite a documentary. Barker calls it (echoing the medium's one true genius, Errol Morris) a "non-fiction feature." Barker interviewed his four subjects, then wrote a script based on their experiences over nine months, and had his subjects "play" themselves. The characters that emerge are extremely vivid: Aimee Copp, a garrulous, overweight young woman who believes her life will be ruined if she isn't married by 30; Brenda Monte, a fortyish Italian woman who's looking for a man to shower her with money and is willing to marry just for that; Michael De Stefano, a bitter fortysomething who seems increasingly insecure about his height (or lack thereof) and constant failures on the romantic front; and Mikey Russo, a middle-aged monster who advertises himself as a screenwriter (he churns out bad T&A action scripts and has never sold one) and is interested purely in sexual conquest.

The film is alternately hilarious and deeply sad . It's also a meditation on exhibition and voyeurism. Nicely composed intercuts peer on anonymous New Yorkers through open apartment windows, and one gradually begins to wonder why these four subjects would submit to such an investigation of their private lives.

Unmade Beds delivers, but as nice as those intercuts are, they seem to come too frequently and last too long, as if Barker was trying to make up for lack of usable material and pad his film (which clocks in at 93 minutes) to meet acceptable feature length.


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