Jean Eustache: the outsider who reshaped French cinema

The filmmaker Jean Eustache's interest in la France profonde, his sense of national history and his sardonic scepticism about the May ’68 ideologues mark him out from his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries.

The film director Jean Eustache.
The film director Jean Eustache. Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

When thinking of internationally famous French film directors, the names of Jean Renoir, Jacques Tati or François Truffaut come to mind. There is in the history of French cinema, however, a more obscure, eccentric, yet profoundly influential figure, that of Jean Eustache. He doesn’t really fit within any school or movement, but his career – cut short by his suicide in 1981 as a result of depression and alcoholism – produced a body of fiction and documentary films that holds up a revealing mirror to French society and the French mindset, especially around the tumultuous times of the May ’68 ‘évènements’.

Jean Eustache was born in 1938 in Pessac, a village near Bordeaux, where he was brought up by his grandmother Odette Robert until 1951. He then moved to Narbonne to live with his mother, left school early and trained as a railway technician. It was as a young provincial of modest means that he moved to Paris. In 1958 he married Jeannette Delos, with whom he would have two sons. It was through Delos, who worked as a secretary in the offices of the emerging film periodical Les Cahiers du cinéma, that Eustache, the working-class outsider, gradually found a way into the world of Parisian filmmaking.

In the 1960s he began making films under the wing of the Nouvelle Vague directors: his early film Le père Noël a les yeux bleus (Father Christmas Has Blue Eyes, 1965) was printed on Kodak film donated by Jean-Luc Godard. By the time he came to prominence with his magnum opus La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore) in 1973, Eustache’s southern accent had receded, and he had reinvented himself as a Baudelairian Parisian dandy, an acerbic wit with long hair, dark glasses and a flowing silk scarf.

In spite of surface similarities – his films, like those of the Nouvelle Vague, feature irreverent dialogue, ne’er-do-well characters, and naturalistic shooting on the move in the street – Eustache did, from the beginning of his cinematic career, stand apart from insiders like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, and ploughed his own furrow. For one thing, Eustache did not consider himself anything so grand as an auteur: he was rather, in the words of French film critic Serge Daney, the ethnologist of his own reality. One of Eustache’s girlfriends noted for example how, after an argument with her, he would immediately go downstairs to a café and transcribe their exchange to be used later – verbatim – as film dialogue. His perfectionistic and rather implacable approach to filmmaking was driven by the desire to record the things that interested and preoccupied him: women, dandyism, Paris and the French language on the one hand, but also, far more unusually, the traditional and rural world where he had grown up. The latter is particularly well illustrated in Eustache’s documentary films, which focus on archiving some of the history and traditions of the French countryside.

These include Le cochon (The Pig, 1970), shot on a small farm, which follows the stages of a pig’s slaughter and its transformation into pâté and sausages, and Numéro Zéro (1971), a lengthy interview with Eustache’s septuagenarian grandmother Odette, born in 1900, who recounts the story of her life in Pessac and its environs. They are bracketed by two films Eustache made in 1968 and 1979, both called La Rosière de Pessac. The films track the yearly process of electing the village’s rosière, an unmarried young woman who is awarded a crown of roses in recognition of her virtue.

Le cochon, perhaps the starkest of these, records without comment an ancient ceremony of the terroir carried out by a group of farmers, which Eustache remembered well from his childhood. Yet the spectacle of the sacrifice and dismemberment of the pig also operates as a sort of memento mori: ‘The pig dies after five minutes, like in a film by Hitchcock,’ Eustache said.

Odette Roberts’ artless, direct autobiographical monologue in Numéro Zéro (in which Eustache, only visible from the back, says very little) paints a picture of twentieth-century French history, including two world wars and some seismic social changes. Particularly striking are the selfless stoicism (and occasional black humour) of her account in the face of the tremendous hardships she endured – from widespread infant mortality to what we would nowadays call an almost complete absence of agency – and also its rootedness in the rural experience, far away from the capital.

The two Rosière de Pessac films, meanwhile, reveal the workings of a local tradition reaching back to the sixth century (and interrupted by the 1789 Revolution before being reinstated in 1896). We are shown the selection process, a discussion involving the mayor, the local priest and other local worthies each lobbying for their candidate, the committee’s visit to the chosen maiden’s village dwelling to deliver the news, and on the given day, the procession through the village of the rosière, decked out like a bride, culminating in a Catholic mass.

The first of the two films was made in June 1968, very soon after the riots of May, and although the events are alluded to by the priest in church, they appear to belong to a reality very remote from that of a small village community embedded in its rituals.

When Eustache revisits Pessac for his second film in 1979, the community has grown considerably, with several new housing estates full of newcomers, and the chosen rosière is collected from the tower block where her family live. The two films were for Eustache an archivist’s project: he recorded the experience objectively, without comment, in the spirit of the early cinema of the Lumière brothers, and he regretted not having been able to chart the event on film since its revival in 1896.

This body of documentaries provides an illuminating hinterland to Eustache’s feature films, which are remarkable works of fictionalised autobiography. His experience of being torn away from village life with his grandmother and transplanted to the larger town of Narbonne with his mother – the end of an idyllic childhood, the abrupt interruption of schooling and transition into an apprenticeship, and the beginnings of an erotic and cinematic education – is recounted with a complete absence of sentimentality in the 1974 film Mes petites amoureuses (My Little Loves, a title taken from one of Arthur Rimbaud’s most vitriolic poems).

My Little Loves followed Eustache’s breakthrough film The Mother and the Whore, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. A study of an impossible Parisian love triangle set against the background of the lost utopian promises of May ’68 and shot in lustrous black-and-white, the film follows the romantic and philosophical meanderings through the cafés and streets of the Left Bank of twentysomething flâneur (and Eustache alter ego) Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud, made famous in 1959 as the young star of Truffaut’s Nouvelle Vague classic The 400 Blows) between Marie (Bernadette Lafont), the slightly older woman with whom he lives and who supports him financially, and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), a nurse who leads a life of sexual promiscuity.

Initially, The Mother and the Whore enjoyed a succès de scandale: its shocking title and defiant use of crude language in reference to sex were intriguing. The film was given an 18 certificate in France. Yet spectators hoping for titillation would have been disappointed: the film’s sexual content is quite modest. This may be because, as Bernadette Lafont suggested, there remained in Jean Eustache, for all his Left Bank provocateur ways, ‘a grain of puritanism’. It was also because for Eustache, speech was infinitely preferable to action. Rather than be seen doing things, his garrulous characters are shown describing them to one another. Besides, The Mother and the Whore is no paean to free love and sexual liberation: the trio’s tergiversations are revealed to be a series of painful and humiliating encounters, including some almost unendurably awkward three-in-a-bed scenes. What Eustache identified (through his own experience, as this film is, like My Little Loves, a work of autofiction) was that post-’68 ‘open’ relationships were just as restrictive and oppressive as the old rules of courtship (which a girl explains with dreary deadpan seriousness to the young male protagonist in My Little Loves) forbidding sex before marriage. There is, in fact, no exit from rules, Eustache suggests, and untrammelled freedom proves to be an illusion.

Ultimately, the reason for the film’s 18 certificate had nothing to do with sex: French censors were worried that its atmosphere of deep despair might prove dangerously contagious to the young. They may have had a point about this strange and contrarian film, which, though it is playful and often very funny, also evokes a nocturnal Paris haunted by bereft characters whose yearning for each other has an insatiable vampiric quality.

Though it is recognisably set in the hip Left Bank of the 1970s, where Alexandre’s girlfriend Marie runs a Biba-style clothing boutique and listens to Deep Purple, The Mother and the Whore is imbued with profound nostalgia. Alexandre and Veronika are backward-looking dandyish characters who enjoy the songs and films of yesteryear and bask in the memory of the Left Bank’s 1920s-30s glory days. Another surprising aspect of the film: in what feels like a rejection of the enforced egalitarianism of May ’68, the three main characters address each other using the formal vous form – just as in the classical seventeenth-century tragedies of Racine and Corneille – as opposed to the more casual tu. Alexandre is also consumed with a sense of French society’s apocalyptic decline, berating the right-wing government of Georges Pompidou, and the rise of thrusting executives and technocrats as the dominant class.

This overwhelming negativity and crepuscular atmosphere are very much at odds with the historical context of the film. In the early 1970s France was still basking in the glow of the Trente Glorieuses, the postwar era of prosperity that lasted until 1975. Beyond the screen, the background of the pessimistic and forlorn Mother and the Whore was a thriving, youthful country where unemployment was rare. President Pompidou and his government were driving a series of modernising policies: this was the time of Concorde, of the launch of the TGV high-speed train and the development of French autoroutes.

None of this optimistic futurism is perceptible in the film, which is more evocative of the aftermath of an unspecified catastrophe. Eustache’s film is also at odds with an important shift in French law – the decriminalisation of abortion which would be passed in 1975. In 1973, when The Mother and the Whore was released, the issue was high on the national agenda, and the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published the Manifest of the 343, a petition calling for legalisation and signed by 343 high-profile French women who admitted to having had an abortion (thus running the risk of arrest and imprisonment). When Alexandre declares, in a withering tirade, that abortionists are ‘murderers’ who in the eyes of modern women have become the ‘new Robin Hoods and knights in shining armour’, he speaks against this tide of change. And the character of Alexandre is a cinematic version of Eustache, who speaks the words and expresses the ideas spoken and expressed before by Eustache in his own private life.

What emerges from all this – an interest and rootedness in the old ways of the countryside, a sense of national history attached to a grandmother who was an ordinary French person, a sardonic scepticism about the power of May ’68 ideologues to change the nature of relationships between men and women – is a picture of the French temperament that is very different from the common perception of France as emotionally and politically eruptive, as the home of natural revolutionaries. This is an idea associated with the memory of the French Revolution, of the May ’68 student riots, and perhaps also, more recently, of the social protests of the gilets jaunes. Yet the reaction to (and aftermath of) all these events has been a robust return to social stability. The May ’68 demonstrations shocked the majority of French people to the core. Outside of Paris, France is at heart a profoundly conservative country, which, though it has done away with absolute monarchy and become a Republic, has at its head a President who, certainly since de Gaulle’s time in power, thinks of himself as a sort of monarch.

Jean Eustache was of nostalgic temperament and preferred the past to the present, but he did not think of himself as a political reactionary. His films are anything but conformist: indeed, few scenes are as disconcertingly subversive as the opening of My Little Loves, in which the young protagonist takes advantage of being in church – about to be confirmed – to press himself in predatory fashion against the body of the young girl standing before him. But as a filmmaker, Eustache believed that the best way to be revolutionary in 1970s France was to cleave to tradition and, eschewing new techniques, to ‘take some big steps backwards’ by going back to the Lumière brothers’ approach: simply recording what was before the camera. Though he remained a marginal figure in his lifetime, he has been cited as an influence by numerous young French filmmakers, from Arnaud Despléchin and Gaspard Noé to Mia Hansen-Løve and Bertrand Bonello, who all inherited and interpreted in their own way Eustache’s idea of filmmaking as personal ethnography.

When considering the artistic scene of 1970s Paris, Eustache certainly looked the part of the Bohemian artist, but he did not, in fact, espouse the ideology of May ’68, an era with which he remains associated. One of the student riots’ utopian slogans was: ‘Sous les pavés, la plage’ – ‘beneath the paving stones, the beach’. But in the case of Eustache, the Pessac native who made himself a Parisian, what lay beneath the paving stones was the soil of his native province.


Muriel Zagha