Numéro zéro, 1971/2003. Composed as an uninterrupted conversation with Jean Eustache’s sprightly, talkative, nearly blind, septuagenarian maternal grandmother, Odette Robert, Numéro Zéro prefigures the studies in narrative construction of Une Sale histoire in its illustration of performance and interpenetrating film reality. Inspired by their conversation during an afternoon stroll, the film reflects Eustache’s assumed role as archivist, creating a two camera composite, unedited recording of Odette’s memories of village life. Told with self-effacing humor and bracing candor, Odette weaves organically through the extraordinary density of her seemingly “ordinary” human experience, from the trauma of her mother’s death from tuberculosis when she was seven years old, to her strained relationship with her demanding stepmother, Marie, to the austerity of life during the war, to her turbulent marriage to a skirt-chasing war veteran, to the deaths of her three young sons from childhood illnesses, to the care of her elderly, terminally ill father and stepmother during their final days, and lastly, to her arrival in Paris (at Eustache’s invitation) to help take care of her great-grandson son, Boris. As in the Le Cochon and La Rosière de Pessac, Eustache captures, not only an overlooked, rapidly disappearing way of life, but also the continuity of a collective history itself, a passing between generations that is implied in the film’s silent preface showing Boris accompanying Odette to a corner shop, before briefly walking away on another errand (similarly, in La Rosière de Pessac, the oldest living Rosière symbolically passes the torch to the next generation). Moreover, in maintaining the footage of clapperboard marks – often, interrupting Odette in mid thought to signal the necessity of a reel change – Eustache also creates a sense of intersecting reality, briefly disengaging Odette (and the spectator) from the reality of her vivid memories towards the parallel reality of her role as storyteller in Eustache’s latest film (an awareness of the artifice of film construction that is further reinforced in a Dutch television representative’s coincidental call to Eustache inquiring about purchasing rights to Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes). It is in this dual role as personal testament and performer that Numéro Zéro also becomes a metaphor for coming full circle, where life and film are integrally connected to the evolutionary cycle of chronicling complex, human history.
Mes petites amoureuses, 1974. In Luc Moullet’s essay, Better to Burn Out than to Fade Away: Blue Collar Dandy, Moullet frames Jean Eustache’s decision to film his grandmother Odette Robert for Numéro Zéro within the context of the postwar generation’s mindset:
Grandparents played an important role in the lives of many French filmmakers during this period. The generation born in the Twenties often sent their children to the countryside to live with their grandparents: this allowed the children to be better fed during the German Occupation, and the parents to enjoy life immediately after the war. The result was a reverence for grandparents and a rejection of the father and mother – a crisis that fertilized a number of artistic careers.
This sense of dislocation (in some ways, a retreat towards an idealized past), absence, and rootlessness captures the awkward adolescence of a young boy – later identified as Daniel (Martin Loeb) – in Eustache’s semi-autobiographical film as well. Nostalgic without being sentimental, the autofictional image of a restless youth embodied by Daniel – an impotent rage that is revealed in an early episode when he attacks a classmate without provocation at the schoolyard – invites immediate comparison with François Truffaut’s iconic alterego, Antoine Doinel or the fragile Laurent in Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart. Forced to leave the comfort of his doting grandmother’s house when his mother (Ingrid Caven) moves to another town in order to live with her Spanish lover, the turning point is presaged in Daniel’s parting conversation with his neighboring playmates on the way to the train station, remarking that he was not leaving for the summer, but “for always” – the acknowledgement of a juncture away from childhood that is also reinforced in his first unaccompanied train trip.
Rather than a chronicle of the serial misadventures of a wayward young hero, Eustache’s penchant for distilled naturalism and rigorous attention to detail suggests even greater affinity with Maurice Pialat, a shared aesthetic that is further reinforced through Pialat’s appearance in the film as a visitor who challenges Daniel on his academic knowledge (placing great importance on learning the fundamentals that also reflects their like-minded approach to filmmaking). Having abandoned his education when his mother could not afford to pay for incidental school expenses, Daniel bides his time drifting through the bucolic small town, observing – and mimicking – their local rituals, working as an apprentice in a mechanic’s shop, and falling into the company of other aimless, out of school boys at a café watching people go by. In its patient observation and consciousness of time’s passage, the film also converges towards Eustache’s pastoral documentaries, a conscious attempt to capture a quotidian memory destined to fade away: the novelty and exoticism that the arrival of the traveling circus represents, the town square promenades where people choreograph their “chance” meeting with potential romantic interests, the matinees where strangers steal kisses under the cover of a darkened theater. In this respect, Daniel’s imitative gestures not only serve to reinforce his learned social behaviors as a way of conforming to the world around him, but also become figurative rehearsals in his own journey towards maturity. It is this transformative journey that is poetically crystallized in his bicycle ride with friends to a neighboring town – a day trip that culminates with Daniel revealing his name to a girl (and to the audience) for the first time after a hard fought moment alone with her – in a sense, breaking away from the pack to assert his own identity.
La Peine perdue de Jean Eustache, 1997. Angel Díez’s reverent and elegiac rumination on the iconoclastic, deeply personal cinema of Jean Eustache, La Peine perdue de Jean Eustache (The Lost Sorrows of Jean Eustache) hews closer to essay film than straightforward documentary, a muted, brooding tone piece where loss, grief, and mourning are reflected in the images of empty spaces, fragmented figures, and extended silences. Shot in high contrast black and white that evokes the stark, rough hewn quality of The Mother and the Whore, Eustache’s conflicted sense of inspiration and desolation is articulated in the delayed, enigmatic remark from his abandoned script La Peine perdu, dispassionately read by actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, that opens the film: “For the first time, I think I see things more clearly”. Disenchanted by a cultural complacency that has led to a lack of engagement in “real politics”, Eustache’s aesthetic approach converges towards the idea of a marginal cinema, not from a production or economic perspective, but from an observational point of view – challenging the spectator into new ways of seeing – whether through the humor and nobility of quaint, local customs that define small village life in the forgotten, out of fashion, “other France”, or the moral stagnation of a lost generation in the wake of a failed May 68 revolution, or the relationship between images and sound that define the nature of cinema itself.
Not surprisingly, Eustache considers his role in filmmaking to be that of archivist instead of author, a respect for the subject and sacredness of images that is especially reflected in his provincial documentaries, Le Cochon and La Rosière de Pessac (and indirectly, Numéro Zéro). On his decision to remake La Rosière de Pessac, Eustache argues that the annual celebration could have easily been remade many times over, noting that the local mayor revived the village festival in 1896, loosely coinciding with the creation of the earliest Lumière films. In this sense, the Rosière ceremony represents not only a chronicle of French history, but is also integrally connected to the evolution of cinema. Moreover, on Le Cochon, Jean-Michel Barjol reinforces the idea of a filmmaker’s archivist role by respectfully disagreeing with Eustache’s earlier comment that their individually shot footage would have produced a different film from the actual final collaboration, arguing that their independent efforts would have invariably converged towards a near identical film to the resulting collaborative one, arbitrated by the (re)assertion of reality into the shot images. Ironically, the archivist versus author debate is seemingly upended in a subsequent episode in which an image of Eustache is momentarily observed walking along the other side of a wall during the dressing sequence of Le Cochon, and becomes a fitting metaphor for Eustache’s abbreviated legacy: the faint, fleeting image of a wandering spirit, and the indelible imprint left behind in its passing.
Une Sale histoire, 1977. Composed of two separate, near verbatim vignettes – alternately framed as a documentary, then as fiction film – Une Sale histoire is told from the perspective of a recovering peeping tom who tells his sordid tale of voyeuristic obsession before an intimate, predominantly female audience. In the first part, the spatial relation between the speaker, played by actor Michael Lonsdale, and the listener, played by film critic Jean Douchet – a distance that is reinforced by the latter’s invitation to sit on a couch to tell his story – suggests the role of subject and interviewer (or perhaps, patient and analyst), as the glib, animated speaker recounts his accidental discovery of a cleverly concealed (and intentionally created) gap in the doorway of the ladies’ room while using the public telephone of a local bistro, and the figurative Pandora’s box that his newfound secret, erotic gateway unleashes in his quest to find the perfect woman whose physical appearance complemented the images created by his aroused fantasies. In the second part, the deliberation and exactness of the speaker, this time, played by the author of the story, Jean-Noël Picq, suggests a formal re-enactment of the earlier “interview” – the staging of a non-fiction fiction. Upending conventional roles by casting actor as storyteller (Lonsdale) and storyteller as actor (Picq), Jean Eustache creates a radical and intriguing exposition into the nature of narrative and performance itself, proposing that the boundaries of filmmaking do not exist between reality and fiction, but within layers and permutations of equally modulated fiction.
Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, 1966. Droll, charming, and picaresque, Jean Eustache’s film chronicles the empty hours, petty capers, and amorous misadventures of Daniel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an unmotivated (and consequently fired) erstwhile bricklayer and modern day dandy who, rather than admit to his blue collar roots, has concocted an elaborate tale of paternal conspiracy and social consciousness for his perennially cash-strapped circumstances and habitual unemployment. But with few prospects to win a girl’s heart without going (and more pressingly, spending money) on a date, and the impending arrival of colder weather, Daniel and his equally fashionably underemployed friend Dumas (Gérard Zimmermann) arrive at the conclusion that the answer to their winter doldrums lies in saving enough money to buy a stylish, a la mode duffel coat for the new year. To this end, he decides to accept a job offer from a photographer (René Gilson) to work as a sidewalk Santa, soliciting people in the street to have their pictures taken with him for a fee. Donning full costume, the roguish young Santa freely chats up women on the street who eagerly stop to pose for a picture (and unwittingly, an opportunistic grope from the all too insinuating Father Christmas), and bewilder unsuspecting acquaintances as he catches them off guard with his seemingly omniscient personal knowledge. In disguise, Daniel soon finds paradoxical liberation in his newfound anonymity. In its lyrical and ribald treatment of idle (or more appropriately, stunted) youth, it’s easy to see the rudiments of the posturing, self-absorbed loafer, Alexandre (also played by Leaud) of Eustache’s magnum opus The Mother and the Whore taking shape in this brisk and delightful early collaboration. Ironically, devoid of the political context that pervades The Mother and the Whore, Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes becomes an even more incisive contemporary portrait of an adrift, postwar generation, where the aimless pursuit of the here and now reveals the giddy anxiety of lost identity.
Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights, 1980. Filmed by Jean Eustache for the television program, Les Enthousiastes, the film presents a series of unstructured observations, free associations, and interpretations on the third panel of Bosch’s well-known oil on wood triptych by Eustache’s friend, Jean Frapat before a small captive audience. From the onset, Eustache creates a wry and playful ambiguity to Frapat’s dry intellectualism and occasionally untenable rumination, juxtaposing Frapat’s serious-minded struggle on the genesis of a vignette that shows a pig dressed in a nun’s habit (suggesting that an anthropomorphic transformation must have taken place before the captured moment), with the implicit humor of the sacrilegious image itself, then cutting to the shot of a woman with an enigmatic expression who then places her hand against her head, perhaps shifting unconsciously out of boredom or subtly expressing her own skepticism over the guest speaker’s tangential discourse. At times, Frapat’s observations are insightful, noting the absence of expression at moments of death and humiliation, the attribution of animal and mechanical characteristics to the human form, and the Freudian symbolism implicit in repeated acts of stabbing and piercing that dominate the panel. On other occasions, his drawn conclusions seem too ambitious and insupportable (most notably, in Frapat’s suggestion that the third triptych is replete with symbolic depictions of the seven human orifices – the six common to all humans, and the seventh, female – but cannot point out an instance of the seventh when challenged (perhaps, not surprisingly, by the same woman shown shifting her head near the beginning of the film), and instead, cuts the inquiry short by suggesting its vague ubiquity throughout the painting). It is interesting to note that while Frapat moves upward during his commentary from the amorous, habited pig in the lower corner, to the images of men fused with instruments, to the “ear cannon” that suggests the man-made nature of warfare, to the decimating conflagration the dominates the upper panel, Eustache films the panel in the opposite direction, incisively illustrating the cycle, not only of the grotesque dehumanization that comes with eternal damnation and the idea of humanity as self-perpetuating, tarnished mechanisms of abject life and death, but also of the interrogative – and provocative – nature of art itself.
Les Photos d’Alix, 1978. Ostensibly an informal guided commentary through personal photographs taken by Alix Cléo Roubaud for a young interviewer (Boris Eustache), the film ingeniously explores the nature of reality and perspective within the framework of documentary filmmaking. This sense of trompe l’oeil is prefigured in an early double exposed photograph of Alix’s husband, novelist Jacques Roubaud taken from a London hotel room, explaining that the duality had been intentionally developed in order to simulate an elongated profile that more appropriately conforms to the traditional notion of a Hollywood style bed, a manipulation of image that is also illustrated in a subsequent photograph of an induced sunset created by selective masking. Eustache’s approach to the film similarly expounds on Alix’s photographic experimentation, juxtaposing the curious image of a smiling, shirtless man seemingly disembodied below the rib cage against Alix’s comical, if askew anecdote on plying a friend with alcoholic beverages in order to look more relaxed as she takes his picture on a couch. In another humorous episode, Alix conveys the fond memories her father through what she describes as the most iconic image of him from her childhood, revealing a shot of a driver’s ear and receded hairline taken from the back of a car, his face partially visible only through the reflection of the rearview mirror. Soon, the conversation grows even more puzzling, as the young man apparently fails to recognize himself in a photograph, Alix incongruously points out the admirable physicality of an unknown man who was accidentally captured on film, as a naked, overweight man stands on the side of the frame, and her revelry on the coincidence of having two former romantic interests converging in the same shot is seemingly reduced to the banal image of a pair of worn boots. As Alix’s insights into her sources of inspiration and creative process become increasingly dissociated from the images, Eustache illustrates the point of rupture between the visual and aural, where filmed storytelling lies, not in the symmetry of information, but in its chance intersections and disjunctions.
Le Cochon, 1970. Something of a germinal template for Raymond Depardon’s Profils Paysans films on a dying way of life in rural (and largely forgotten) France, Jean Eustache and Jean-Michel Barjol’s reverent, vital, and painstakingly observed ethnographic documentary chronicles a day in the life of peasant farmers in the mountainous region of the Massif Central. In hindsight, the central nature of the pig implied by the film’s title introduces the element of subverted expectation that would continue to resurface throughout Eustache’s body of work. In Le Cochon, the violence of the establishing sequences that record a communal, fattened pig’s anxious capture, instinctive struggle, restraint, slaughter, and exsanguination gives way to the unexpected artisanal skill, attentive care, and graceful ritual of its dressing, butchering, food processing, and cooking. In a lingering, stationary shot, the stark whiteness of the dressed pig framed against a bed of straw – still emanating steam from its residual body temperature and the hot water applied during the cleaning – creates an ethereal image that suggests a metaphysical sublimation. In another sequence, a farmer’s methodical recovery of the intestines to be used as sausage casing transforms into a seeming rustic ballet in the synchronous sweeping motion of his arms, initially, to obtain equally apportioned lengths, then subsequently, to displace a quantity of rinse water throughout the length of the casing. Later in the film, the delicate precision and innate craftsmanship of sausage making is reflected in the measured drawing and turning of the casing against the meat grinder. In a sense, by presenting these quotidian rituals without narration or intertitles, and relying solely on the words expressed by the farmers in their regional dialect and colloquialisms, the film, too, becomes a sublimation, rejecting the mediation of external translation towards an instinctual coherence of human toil, creativity, and celebration.
Acquarello, 2008 [reprinted]