Swing the Body Electric
In the current issue of Film Comment, Harmony Korine names Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore "the greatest movie about love." It's easy to see how Korine would identify with Alexander (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the film's fragile, romantic, passive-aggressive, logorrheic protagonist, whose flood of fantasized selves and others could not drown his fear of sex, death, and the end of cinema.
Made in 1972, this fairly autobiographical work (shot in the director's own apartment) is full of à clef references to New Wave directors with whom Eustache felt bitterly competitive, and grounded in the malaise that followed May '68. But it also shares and bares the anxiety about masculinity that fuels American films of the '70s from Carnal Knowledge to Taxi Driver, not to mention John Cassavetes's oeuvrean anxiety exacerbated by the so-called sexual-liberation movement and the subsequent rise of feminist consciousness. It's no accident that during the first conversation Alexander has with Veronika (Françoise Lebrun)the young nurse whom he tries to entice into a ménage à trois with Marie (Bernadette Lafont), his older, richer live-in girlfriendhe makes a disparaging remark about women's lib. Veronika claims to know nothing about it, although her final drunken monologue, in which she rages against being identified as a whore by men terrified of her sexuality, shows that she's not as naive as she seems.
Three and a half hours long, The Mother and the Whore is both epic and intimate, ethnographic in its cultural detail and subjective in its exposure of the raw nerves of body and psyche. It's Eustache's greatest cinematic achievement, though not his only significant one, as this near complete retrospective proves. Included is the 1966 short feature Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (which stars Léaud as a young man tired of being stuck in a small town who takes an embarrassing job so that he can buy the coat that everyone in Paris is wearing) and the deadpan documentary La Rosière de Pessac, for which Eustache returned to his birthplace in 1968 and again in 1979 to record the annual selection of the "most virtuous girl in town." Not to be missed is the 47-minute Une Sale Histoire, in which Jean Noel-Picq (Eustache's friend and occasional screenwriting collaborator) confesses to a voyeuristic compulsion so humiliating and ridiculous it provokes both pity and laughterand Mes Petites Amoureuses, the feature Eustache made immediately after The Mother and the Whore.
The film embodies his perverse refusal to capitalize on success. Abandoning Paris bohemia, Eustache returned to the two small working-class towns where he grew up to make a memory piece about a 12-year-old's first sexual explorations and his painful discovery that the adults who have the most power over him do not have his best interests at heart. Lyrically photographed by Néstor Almendros, and wonderfully acted by Martin Loeb (who plays Daniel, Eustache's childhood alter ego) and several other adolescent performers, Mes Petites Amoureuses lovingly details rituals of courtship and friendship. Daniel is a budding film buff, an unusually self-contained boy with observing eyes that give almost nothing of himself away. In one achingly precise scene, Daniel turns his attention from the screen (the film is that Cahiers du Cinéma favorite Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, starring Ava Gardner) to the kids near him who are engaged in a solemn ritual that involves a boy leaning into the next row and kissing the girl in front of him. Having observed a few of these intense, impersonal embraces, Daniel tries out the procedure himself. The most subtle of eye-openers, Mes Petites Amoureuses is a far more rigorous coming-of-age film than The 400 Blows. Eustache, who committed suicide in 1981, never achieved the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, but his films, which have hardly dated, have influenced French directors from Arnaud Desplechin to Claire Denis and Americans from Jim Jarmusch to Korine.
A lovely-looking fairy tale of a movie in which almost every scene is washed with pink-gold light, Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance is easy to mock. You could start with the fact that its starsWill Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theronall have conspicuously pug noses and exceptionally large, white teeth. You might mention that it's conveniently set at the beginning of the Great Depressionbefore people were forced to sell off their clothes and before poverty put lines on their faces. You might also note that although the location is Savannah, a city where everyone seems to wake up humming "Dixie," the N-word never crosses a single pair of lips. And it might occur to you that World War I and the Depression are treated as natural disasters, rather than as political and social events in which human agency played a part. In other words, you would need to suspend everything except wishful thinking to fall under the spell of this movie, which uses golf as a metaphor for life and provides a basic lesson in finding your authentic swing.
Once a teenage golfer of great promise, Rannulph Junuh (Damon) returns from the war burdened with the guilt of being the only survivor in his squadron. Junuh lives like a recluse until he's pressured to represent Savannah in a tournament that his former fiancée, Adele Invergordon (Theron), has organized to save her late father's golf resort from being taken over by the bank. Junuh is about to refuse when out of the woods one moonlit night comes Bagger Vance, a black man with a small suitcase, a rakishly cocked, big-brimmed hat, and a prodigious knowledge of the game. Bagger drops some hints about how they must find the swing Junuh has lost, and, suddenly, the space before Junuh's eyes seems to shift as if it were being simultaneously stretched and squeezed and every blade of grass were illuminated from within and every cricket had its own amplifier. Junuh takes a swing, and while it's not perfect, it's so much closer to what it was in the days before he became plagued by "should'ves and would'ves" that he commits to playing in the match with Bagger as his caddie. The last 40 minutes unfold on the golf course, where Junuh conquers first his fear of failure and then his smug overconfidence to reach the place where "you can play the game that only you were born to play and that was given to you when you came into the world."
Smith delivers such inspirational nuggets with a casual grace that makes them less embarrassing than they appear on the page. Indeed, this is a film filled with graceful performances, graceful camerawork, graceful art direction, graceful sound design, and graceful everything else. It's also something of a personal film, because Damon's vocal delivery and physical mannerismsnot to mention his blue eyes and golden hairare so reminiscent of Redford, and because it references half a dozen Redford films from The Natural to The Great Gatsby to The Horse Whisperer. I would be dishonest if I didn't admit to being choked up by the way the light filtered through the trees in conjunction with all that talk about the mystery of the creative process. But for the most part, The Legend of Bagger Vance is more mushy than mystical. Redford's authentic swing has a harder edge. It takes material like Ordinary People or Quiz Show to bring it to the fore.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.