Jean Eustache ( 30 November 1938 – 5 November 1981) was a French filmmaker. During his short career, he completed numerous shorts, in addition to a pair of highly regarded features, of which the first, The Mother and the Whore, is considered a key work of post-Nouvelle Vague French cinema.
In his obituary for Eustache, the influential critic Serge Daney wrote:
“In the thread of the desolate 70s, his films succeeded one another, always unforeseen, without a system, without a gap: film-rivers, short films, TV programs, hyperreal fiction. Each film went to the end of its material, from real to fictional sorrow.
It was impossible for him to go against it, to calculate, to take cultural success into account, impossible for this theoretician of seduction to seduce an audience.”
Jim Jarmusch dedicated his 2005 film Broken Flowers to Eustache.
Eustache was born in Pessac, Gironde, France into a working class family. Relatively little information exists about Eustache’s life prior to the time he became a member of the Cahiers du cinéma coterie in the late fifties, though it is known that he was largely self-educated and worked in the railroad service prior to becoming a filmmaker.
Information suggests that the mystery surrounding his youth was intentional, with sources stating that “during his lifetime Eustache published little information about his early years, indicating that he felt no nostalgia for an unhappy childhood.”.
Though not a member of the Nouvelle vague, Eustache maintained ties to it, appearing as an actor in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End and editing Luc Moullet’s Une aventure de Billy le Kid, which starred Jean-Pierre Léaud (the lead in Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore).
After becoming a filmmaker, Eustache maintained close ties to his friends and relatives in Pessac. In 1981, he was partially immobilized in an auto accident. He killed himself by gunshot in his Paris apartment, a few weeks before his 43rd birthday.
Eustache had a son, Boris Eustache (b. 1960), who worked on his father’s second feature and appears as an actor in Eustache’s short film Les Photos d’Alix.
Eustache was quoted as saying, “The films I made are as autobiographical as fiction can be.” Because of his reluctance to discuss his personal life, it is assumed that his body of work was largely autobiographical. Besides his fictional shorts and features, Eustache made numerous documentaries, many of them very personal, including several shot in his hometown of Pessac and a feature-length interview with his grandmother.
Eustache directed two narrative features. The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain), the first, is a 217 minute rumination on love, relationships, men and women. The film’s central three-way romance plot focuses on Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), his girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Lafont) and the nurse he meets and falls in love with, Veronika (Françoise Lebrun).
Writing in Time Out New York Andrew Johnston (critic) described his experience in viewing the film in 1999: “One of the great, if all-too-infrequent, pleasures of being a film critic is having your mind blown by a film you didn’t expect much from. Such an incident occurred in December 1997, when I was assigned to review Jean Eustache’s 1973 film The Mother and the Whore, then beginning a revival engagement at Film Forum.
Yes, I’d heard that it was a classic of French cinema, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled at catching an early-morning screening of a three-hour-and-thirty-five-minute black-and-white foreign-language film that reportedly consisted of little more than people sitting around and talking.
Frankly, I was a lot more excited about seeing Scream 2 that evening. Little did I know, as I eased into my seat, that I was in for one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my life.”
Eustache’s second feature, Mes petites amoureuses (1974), was intentionally different from his debut. Shot in color by cinematographer Nestor Almendros (as opposed to The Mother and the Whore’s grainy black-and-white), the film also features significantly less dialogue and focuses on teenage characters in a rural setting. The film was entered into the 9th Moscow International Film Festival.
Eustache admired the documentary qualities of early actuality films, and frequently cited the Lumiere Brothers as influences. He made two films about a religious parade in Pessac, both titled La Rosière de Pessac, in 1968 and 1979, and remade his short Une sale histoire twice.
Regarding the tendency to re-examine in Eustache’s work, the American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: “An obsessive-compulsive filmmaker and clearly a tormented one who wound up dying by his own hand, Eustache was clearly experimenting with his variations as well as goading viewers into examining their own reactions to them.”