Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Jean Eustache & the Second New Wave

March 2 2016

Après le déluge, moi

Jean Eustache first began to appear in the offices of Cahiers du cinéma without great fanfare, regularly picking up his wife, Jeanne “Jeanette” Delos, the magazine’s secretary, at the end of the working day. This was 1962; Jean and Jeanne, still in their early twenties, already had a young son, Boris, in the fashion of working-class kids who were expected to breed early and often; in other ways, however they were looking to shed their class prerogative—after stints working for the railroad and editing Scopitone “music video” clips, Jean was ensconced at RTF, the French public broadcasting organization. He was an aspiring filmmaker, but nothing in his comportment betrayed this fact. “In retrospect,” regular Cahiers contributor Luc Moullet wrote almost forty years later, “I’m sure his reserve at the Cahiers office was due to a certain timidity around the already illustrious Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, even Rohmer, the moving forces behind the magazine.”

These Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers (let’s not forget Claude Chabrol!), along with the cachet of directors making up the politically and theoretically unaffiliated “Left Bank” group, including Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, and Jacques Demy, had altogether been joined under the appellation “La nouvelle vague”—the New Wave. Applied rather freely to a group of more-or-less young filmmakers with a diversity of aesthetic strategies and philosophical temperaments who began making features in the years 1958, 1959, and 1960, it was what we might now call a triumph of branding; still today whenever a new world cinema “hot spot” is discovered or ginned up, it is dutifully pronounced the Macedonian or Laotian New Wave in the cinephile press.

Eustache, born in late 1938, was almost seven years the junior of the baby of the Cahiers old-guard, Truffaut, and nearly an exact contemporary of Moullet, the boy genius who’d begun contributing to the magazine fresh out of lycée with a biography and filmography of serial fibber Edgar G. Ulmer. By the time Eustache was sheepishly hanging around the office, Moullet had already begun to make his own shorts, beginning with 1960’s Un steack trop cuit, and Eustache would follow in kind with his well-received 1963 Les mauvaises fréquentations (Bad Company, a.k.a. Robinson’s Place), but they were already too late to properly belong to the New Wave—registration was closed, the circus had left town.

The French filmmakers who emerged on the scene after the watershed years of Le beau serge and Hiroshima mon amour and The 400 Blows and Breathless and Paris Belongs to Us,and the New Wave avant la lettre La Pointe Courte have sometimes been corralled together under the rubric of the Second New Wave or post–New Wave, though this association seems even more tenuous than that of their predecessors, who at least were for the most part joined by a fellow feeling, a desire to buck the French cinematic establishment as represented by the “Tradition of Quality.” How, then, to group together a crop of talents which includes a autobiographer with a pronounced documentary impulse (Eustache); a fastidiously messy amateur deconstructionist (Moullet); a Belgian-born firebrand with a penchant for memoir (Chantal Akerman); a brusque dramatist continuing and exploding the tradition of French naturalism (Maurice Pialat); a dolorous, tippling sensualist dealing in the vagaries of memory (Marguerite Duras); and a visionary boy poet spiritually aligned to the 19th-century Symbolists (Philippe Garrel); not to speak of diverse figures like Jacques Doillon, Alain Cavalier, Jacques Rozier, André Téchiné, Benoît Jacquot, Jean-Pierre Gorin, or the willfully unclassifiable Marcel Hanoun?

If anything, perhaps some of these figures may have been drawn together by a sense of arriving after the great toppling of idols had been completed and the laurels had been collected. Pialat, a late bloomer whose first feature didn’t see the light of day until he was in his mid-40s, never ceased to resent this fact. “You might say it was the tortoise and the hare,” he told a Cahiers interviewer in 1979. “They were making films and I wasn’t (although I was older than they were). The New Wave was all about a group of friends and when you weren’t part of it, you had trouble making films.” This is not to say that relations between the first New Wavers and those who followed in their wake were necessarily as contentious as Pialat depicts them to be—Truffaut coproduced Pialat’s first feature, L’enfance nue (Naked Childhood, 1968), and Pialat appeared as an actor in Chabrol’s Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die, 1969), playing the pivotal role of a police commissioner. Moullet, a veritable kid brother, practically grew up in the Cahiers offices, and Eustache fed off the scraps of his eminent elders, shooting his follow-up to Bad Company, the 47-minute Le père Noël a les yeux bleus (Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, 1966), with leftover stock from Godard’s Masculin féminin, using Truffaut’s onscreen alter-ego Jean-Pierre Léaud not for the last time to serve as his own stand-in. (In a sense Godard was an unofficial “godfather” to Eustache, as Truffaut was to Pialat.)

As for their relations with one another, the filmmakers who might be affiliated with a Second New Wave were tangled up in ways large and small. Moullet produced Nathalie Granger (1972), Duras’s fourth film as a director, on which Jacquot assisted. Téchiné codirected Marc’O’s Les idoles (1968), edited by Eustache, and has a walk-on part in Eustache’s sprawling first feature, The Mother and the Whore (1973). In 1968, Eustache appeared before Garrel’s camera on the TV show Seize millions des jeunes, offering up his political philosophy: “A guy who’s starving doesn’t think of Marxism. He thinks above all of eating.” (The clip appears in Garrel’s 1989 documentary Les Ministères de l'art, a “history” of the post–New Wave directors featuring several of the names cited here.)

Among this disparate group, however, we can divine an actual confederation of sorts between three figures, Eustache, Moullet, and Pialat, an interrelation based in both more-or-less involved collaborations and a community of common interests. Each in their own way straddled the realms of documentary and narrative fiction filmmaking, with one foot in each—Akerman also contributed early work in the “hybrid” mode, and Gorin picked up the string later, but generational and geographical breaches set these artists apart. After Santa Claus, Eustache brought out a string of documentaries: The Virgin of Pessac (1968), Le cochon (The Pig, 1970), and Numéro zéro (1971). Moullet would turn to documentary with a greater commitment later in his career, though as early as his second short, Terres noires (1961), he’s exploring the possibilities of the experimental topographical doc. Pialat had cut his teeth on nonfiction, paying bills through most of the 1960s by making commissioned documentaries about Turkey and regional portraits for Chroniques de France, and L’Enfance nue had first been conceived of as a nonfiction film about foster care. His first film to attract recognition, 1961’s Prix Jean Vigo–winning L’amour existe, was a 21-minute nonfiction piece with a strong autobiographical element, about life in the lower middle-class Parisian suburbs.

This suggests another common bond between the trio: that of class identity, which in each case is inextricable from a sense of place. Unlike the New Wavers, who for the most part came from comfortable circumstances, these three were intimately familiar with the sort of gray suburbs that slumming rich-kid Godard enjoyed capturing the atmospherics of. Pialat was born into a working-class family, raised in the grotty precincts of Courbevoie and Montreuil-sous-bois, while occasionally passed off onto his maternal grandparents. L’enfance nue was largely shot in the rough northeastern mining town of Lens, as was his 1979 Passe ton bac d’abord (Graduate First), and through his career Pialat would maintain a pronounced interest in blue-collar rite and ritual. Moullet’s mother was a typist and his father, an ardent admirer of Adolf Hitler, was a mail sorter who later managed a small factory that made work clothes—in later years Moullet would list his occupation as habilleur de charbonnier (“outfitter of coal-miners”). Though born in Paris, he self-identified with the Hautes Alpes de Provence, from whence his peasant forebears had come, much as Pialat would identify himself with his ancestral country of the Auvergne. While growing up Eustache divided his time between Pessac, near Bourdeaux in the southwest, where he stayed with his maternal grandmother after his parents’ divorce, and Narbonne, in Languedoc-Roussillon, on the Mediterranean coast, where he settled with his mother at age twelve. All of this would find its place in his filmography: a local pageant in Pessac determining the most virtuous girl in town was the subject of both The Virgin of Pessac and it’s 1979 “sequel,” revisiting the same scene a decade later; Numéro zéro is an extended interview with his grandmother, Odette Robert; and the emotional life of a child uprooted to live with his mother in Narbonne is at the center of Eustache’s second and final feature, Mes petites amoureuses (My Little Loves, 1974), the stated goal of which was, per Eustache, “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” (Whether working in fiction or documentary, the work of these filmmakers usually retained a strong element of autobiography.)

When Eustache was unable to get any of his own fiction projects off the ground in the late 1960s, Moullet, who had produced Le cochon, put him to work editing Une aventure de Billy the Kid (A Girl Is a Gun, 1971), a fractured Western starring Léaud, filmed in the mountainous southern Baronnies. Moullet would later recall Eustache, during this period, as being haunted by a film that he hoped to get underway, The Mother and the Whore, with the screenplay in part based on surreptitiously taped conversations and arguments with girlfriends:

“In front of the Moviola he would recite the dialogue he had written in his big notebook the night before, without pausing from his editing. The screenplay was a series of conversations (a bit like Rohmer), and he was trying it out on me, as he had on others, testing our reactions to the paradoxes formulated by his hero, Alexandre, who would be incarnated by Jean-Pierre Léaud. What emerged was a sort of right-wing anarchism, not so far removed from Céline’s novels. It wasn’t inspired by ideology but by Eustache’s inherent need to provoke, and in the aftermath of 1968, right-wing anarchism was provocative indeed. It was also Eustache’s retaliation against the cinematographic system that had excluded him . . . the film also captured the speech, and particularly the actions, of post-’68 behavior, without sugarcoating. It could be said that the movie’s strength lies in its insolent mixture of right-wing sentiments and sexual leftism.”

The result would finally be completed in time for the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, where it created the anticipated splash. Pialat had been there the previous year with his second film, We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972) starring Jean Yanne and Marlène Jobert, an autobiographical exposé revisiting his six-year affair with a younger woman called Colette, not so much a warts-and-all picture as a nothing-but-warts one. It had been an unlikely hit in Paris, but upon seeing The Mother and the Whore, the irascible Pialat considered that he had been outdone at his own game, that Eustache had succeeded in going further in self-analyzing his love and sex relations, more unflinchingly and more unsparingly. The “rivalry” appears to have been a friendly one, for Pialat appeared as an actor in Mes petites amoureuses, taking the piss out of Eustache’s adolescent alter-ego, and in a 1978 interview with Cahiers Eustache stated that the “two or three” films that had given him reason to love the cinema since 1968 were from Pialat and Rozier, citing in particular Pialat’s The Mouth Agape (1974) and Rozier’s The Castaways of Turtle Island (1976). (Both, he notes, were significant flops.) Moullet would for his part come around with Anatomy of a Relationship (1976), a film that might be taken as his own response to Pialat and Eustache’s domestic denudings, though with an individual twist, for Moullet was less the boastful macho than his contemporaries, and this story of a married couple (played by Moullet and Billy the Kid’s Christine Hébert) whose routine is interrupted when the wife’s new feminist ideas upend the established dynamic of their relationship, is codirected and cowritten by Antonietta Pizzorno, Moullet’s actual partner, who appears in the last reel to analyze and criticize the action of the preceding drama.

In discussing Pialat and Rozier, neither models of prolificness, with Cahiers, Eustache broaches his own inability to work in the contemporary climate—that “cinematographic system that had excluded him”—a situation that would continue as, until the end of his life, he became an increasingly marginalized figure. This state of affairs may be attributed to both the active hostility of French film culture toward Eustache and his deepening personal problems, including a lingering despair over the suicide of ex-girlfriend Catherine Garnier, a model for the “mother” character of The Mother and the Whore who had worked on the film’s crew, and committed suicide shortly after seeing a rough cut of the movie. Though he would never complete another feature, Eustache continued to work on within his reduced means, producing intellectually scintillating discourse-based shorts, including Photos of Alex and Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights (both 1980), and Une sale histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977), his most explicit exercise in exploring the reality/fiction breach.

After Eustache’s death by self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1981, his work in this vein was variously continued by Pialat, Garrel, Gorin, and Akerman, who almost a quarter century later ended her own life. In eulogizing Akerman, his contemporary and friend, Garrel would compare her News from Home (1977) and Une sale histoire, two microbudget follow-ups to their directors’ acknowledged epic masterpieces, made in straightened circumstances: “Made for next to nothing . . . These are films made on the scale of a private life.”

This private scale, and the very intimacy of Akerman and Eustache’s cinema, indicates another possible unifying element among these disparate post–New Wave directors, many of whom explored the prospects of cinema as a means of confession and self-analysis more thoroughly than even the autobiographically inclined Truffaut. Writing about Garrel’s 1993 film La naissance de l’amour in 1997, Jonathan Rosenbaum outlined a defining ethos for the artistically ambitious French cinema that appeared after the cresting of the New Wave: “A paring down of filmmaking to certain essentials: the bare facts of private, personal experience and emotion without the encrustations of a self-referential movie culture . . . Because the culture of compulsive homage, spawned by the New Wave, eventually crowded out—or buried—lived experience in movies that became progressively more related to other movies and less tied to immediate realities, the relative minimalism of a Garrel or an Akerman offered a salutary return to basics, a breath of fresh air.” (In some respects, Rivette, whose mammoth films threaten to consume life itself, seems like a key transitional figure, particularly with his 1969 L’amour fou.) Like Akerman’s last testament, No Home Movie (2015), comprised of domestic scenes and Skype conversations between her and her late mother, or Garrel’s repeated returns to the scene of his foundered love affair with ex-girlfriend Nico, Eustache’s cinema was born of his confrontation with the world, a fact that Serge Daney seized on in his eulogy for the director: “His cinema was mercilessly personal. That is to say, mercilessly tied up with his experience, to alcohol, to love. Filling up his life in order to make the material of his films was his only moral code, but it was a moral code of iron. The films came when he was strong enough to make them come, to bring back what he made in life.”

There is also, certainly in the cases of Akerman, Garrel, and Eustache, a sense of being consigned to the periphery, of being eternally on the outside looking in, thanks to a combination of fate, design, and temperament—a pack of lone wolves. Pialat, winning the Palme d’or for Under the Sun of Satan at Cannes in 1987, managed to play even his moment of ultimate triumph as a scene of fist-in-the-air defiance against his persecutors and detractors. Rather than publicly aligning with the New Wavers, Pialat had positioned himself as a follower of prewar directors like Marcel Pagnol, and a note of nostalgia for the 1930s and 1940s—even extending to a disquieting flirtation with fascist chic—runs through The Mother and the Whore, in which much of the music that we hear comes from pre-rock n’ roll chanteuses like the German Zarah Leander, Edith Piaf, and Fréhel, whose “La Chanson des Fortifs” (including the lyric “What ever happened to the ramparts?”) is prominently featured. Like Pialat and the rest of the late-to-the-party gang, Eustache was addressing himself to a generation who had arrived after the ramparts had been pulled down, and had emerged, vulnerable, into a terrifying, exhilarating new world.

Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born writer based in Queens, New York. His writing about film appears regularly in Artforum, Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Frieze, and sundry other publications.

Metrograph's series Jean Eustache played March 9–17, 2016.