Jean Eustache, ethnographer of himself | Babelia

Jean Eustache did not have the vocation of life but he did have that of cinema. A late figure of the Nouvelle Vague, he soon slipped into a marginality from which he would never recover. His legacy has been overshadowed for decades by the film that concentrated all the contradictions of his existence, The mom and the whore (1973), but Eustache was much more than that solitary and memorable film of almost four hours. The intense rehearsal A life confined to the cinema or the failure of Jean Eustachewritten in 1986 by the critic Barthélemy Amengual and now rescued in the film collection of the Sevillian publisher Athenaica, joins an almost comprehensive retrospective of his films restored and digitized at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid to open the doors to the obsessions of an unclassifiable filmmaker who ended up committing suicide in 1981 at the age of 43.

His work, scarce and arid, carried defeat within it. The main paradox, according to Amengual, was that Eustache pursued “a non-realistic realism, whose primary concern is not reality. He wants a popular cinema and he makes, with realistic material, an intellectual cinema, weighed down by experiences, asceticism and theoretical verifications. Amengual’s text, built on the basis of fragments, excerpts from interviews with the filmmaker, begins with a prologue by Marcos Uzal, current director of Cahiers du Cinémaand revolves around the idea of ​​Eustache as an ethnographer of himself who aspires “to absolute objectivity, to the pure and simple recording of reality: Lumière filming the arrival of a train.”

The word, that realistic commitment and the obsession with filming weigh heavily in his work. Also his inability to move forward: “In today’s civilization there is no way out for anyone. One can pretend (…) there are those who live and those who pretend,” said the filmmaker. For Amengual, failure shapes Eustache’s work as it does with Cesare Pavese or Arthur Rimbaud, whom he quotes repeatedly. The existential need that cinema had for him was never reciprocated. In a moment of The mom and the whorehe alter ego played by Jean-Pierre Léaud says: “I don’t have the vocation of life.”

It may be Zero number the film that best captures its nature. The Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa recently presented it in Madrid, evoking a fascinating adventure. Zero number It premiered in Paris in May 1971 before just over half a dozen acquaintances. Then he disappeared. Among those spectators was Jean-Marie Straub, and when Costa filmed his documentary Where lies your hidden smile? (Où gît your sourire enfoui?2001) about him and his partner, Danièle Huillet, Straub spoke to him about the impact he had on Number zero. “It devastated him, he didn’t expect that rawness without a hint of idealism or romanticism on Eustache’s part,” Costa said.

Jean Eustache, during the recording of ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights by Jérôme Bosch’ (1979).Laszlo Ruszka (INA/Getty Images)

He embarked together with the critic João Bénard da Costa, then in charge of the Portuguese cinematheque, in the search for that lost film. They visited Boris Eustache, son of the filmmaker, and the old cans appeared under a bed. Zero number is a single-shot film filmed with two cameras taking turns without interruption while Eustache speaks with his maternal grandmother, Odette Robert. The woman, next to a window, absorbs a large white light. In front of her, her grandson, always with her back turned, emerges as an almost vampiric figure. He in black, with long hair, smoking a cigar. They both drink whiskey on a stretcher table whose rug the grandmother caresses and cleans insistently. She also smokes while she recounts a life filled with abuse, poverty and pain. At times, Zero number It works like the negative of a self-portrait, a “I come from here” in which the grandmother’s words, the grandson’s shadowy back and the camera make up a stark and unusual vital picture. Amengual calls it “a cinema of the word and the experimental.” Or as another quote from the critic and historian Joël Magny states: Eustache is “the first primitive of modern cinema.”

The misfortune of his characters slips into his own tragedy, that of a man who arrived in Paris at the age of 17 and never felt that he belonged to anything. He made his films despite subsisting in poverty, but the lifeline of cinema ended up breaking. “Eustache experienced until his suicide the impossibility of finding a balance between life and cinema,” writes Uzal in his prologue, “the search for this balance, incessantly repeated, constitutes the beauty of this art but also defines its melancholy. “Adolescent melancholy, movie buff melancholy.”

Jean Eustache Cycle. Circle of Fine Arts. Madrid. Until 2 March.

Cover of 'A life confined to the cinema or the failure of Jean Eustache', by Barthélemy Amengual.

A life confined to the cinema or the failure of Jean Eustache

Barthélemy Amengual
Translation of Manuel Peláez
Athenaica, 2023
136 pages, 18 euros

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