In just its first week of business, Metrograph, the handsome two-screen theater on Ludlow Street, is reinvigorating New York’s repertory scene, reminding viewers of the unlimited pleasures of adventurous, unpredictable programming. Presenting near-simultaneous tributes to two vastly different filmmakers — the post–Nouvelle Vague legend Jean Eustache and the American-exploitation outlier Stephanie Rothman — Metrograph disinters titles too little seen.
The Eustache retrospective, the first in the city since the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s salute in the fall of 2000, showcases a bracing body of work, consisting of both narratives and documentaries, that reached its terminus too soon: The auteur killed himself in 1981, just a few weeks before turning 43. Eustache’s self-snuffing deepens and darkens his films, none more so than his highly autobiographical magnum opus The Mother and the Whore (1973), whose protagonist declares, “I cannot take suicide seriously.” The director’s premature end also ensured his eternal status as tragic cinephile hero.
Born in 1938 to a working-class family in Pessac, in southwest France — the town serves as the setting for two of his documentaries — Eustache worked for the railroad before pursuing filmmaking. His first two movies, Bad Company (1963) and Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (1967), each less than an hour long, establish an abiding theme: the rituals of café-dwelling, pinball-playing twentyish males and their desperate attempts to pick up young women. Made with film stock left over from Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), Santa Claus stars Jean-Pierre Léaud — not only the protagonist of that JLG movie but the New Wave’s most paradigmatic actor — as perpetual idler Daniel, who says yes to a week-long gig as Father Christmas to earn enough francs to buy a long-coveted duffle coat. Daniel’s convinced that the garment will make him à la mode, but the tatty Saint Nick garb and cotton-ball beard he dons provide an unexpected benefit: “I grabbed all the girls that got their photos taken, and none resisted.” Freewheeling but grounded in precise, almost ethnographic observation, Santa Claus affectionately recalls the fumbling peacocking of late adolescence.
Eustache reteamed with Léaud for The Mother and the Whore, casting the actor as his surrogate: Alexandre, a Beatle-booted and bescarved Parisian dandy in a fractious open relationship with Marie, a slightly older woman who owns a boutique and supports him financially. (She’s played by Bernadette Lafont, the sultry-voiced star of earlier films by New Waver Claude Chabrol.) Forming the third point of a wildly unstable triangle is Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), a nurse who spends her off-hours devoted to libertinism. That Lebrun (who will introduce the 7:30 show on March 9 and participate in a Q&A afterward) was Eustache’s ex is only one of many blurrings of real and screen life: Marie’s grotty garret, dominated by a well-worn mattress on the floor, belonged to another ex, on whom Marie is based. A voluble post–May ’68 dirge, The Mother and the Whore looks askance at the cultural revolution; to Alexandre’s disparaging mention of “women’s lib,” Veronika replies, “What’s that?” The film’s most scalding judgments, though, are reserved for the ostensible hero, a coddled coxcomb sure to drown in his own torrent of words.
The Mother and the Whore jolted the Croisette when it premiered at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix and set off partisan battles. For his next — and final — feature-length narrative project, My Little Loves (1974), Eustache continued to mine the first-person but went back in time, focusing on his early adolescence in la France profonde. Starring the spindly-limbed Martin Loeb as Daniel, the director’s stand-in, the film opens with the boy’s blissful life with his grandmother. (Eustache’s own granny is the subject of his 1971 documentary, Numéro Zéro.) Daniel’s happiness is cut short, however, when he’s sent to live with his seamstress mom (Fassbinder deity Ingrid Caven) and her equally dispirited boyfriend. These highly inadequate parental figures demand that Daniel forgo school for work; apprenticed to a mechanic, the watchful kid observes the petty treacheries of adults. His vision is equally sharp in the dark: Besotted with the giant image of Ava Gardner at the local movie palace, Daniel also studies and repeats the clumsy seduction techniques of his contemporaries sitting near him in the balcony. Compassionate but never sentimental, My Little Loves is an essential entry in the coming-of-age canon, a film that ennobles adolescence by so truthfully portraying its attendant indignities.
Stephanie Rothman’s The Student Nurses (1970), which Metrograph is showing in a new 35mm print, does some elevating of its own: Embedded within this superficially lurid low-budget medical drama/bedroom comedy are some radical ideas about reproductive rights and health care for all, regardless of citizenship status. Sure, Rothman — a onetime assistant to B-movie maestro Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures produced and distributed The Student Nurses — includes countless nudie shots of her quartet of SoCal RN hopefuls. But more screen time is devoted to the sexism the leggy caregivers face in the workplace, if not the evils of patriarchy in general; the most astonishing sequence of the film, which premiered three years before Roe v. Wade, centers, quite calmly, on an at-home abortion. As it happens, abortion — at least talk of it — features prominently in The Mother and the Whore. Thanks to Metrograph’s ingenious programming, two wildly disparate films can now be seen in conversation with each other.
The Student Nurses
Directed by Stephanie Rothman
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