Portraying the darker sides of the free-love era, Jean Eustache’s epic masterpiece La Maman et la Putain (1973) chronicles- in four tantalising hours- the lives of three Parisians in a bizarre love triangle, a ménage-trois that is painful and provoking.
Egotistical and insufferable Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) lives with his girlfriend, Marie (Bernadette Lafont), who has a firm but mistaken trust in her boyfriend’s love while allowing him other lovers. So trusting is she that she allows him to have an intimate rendezvous with Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), a nurse whom Alexandre meets on the street and feels an instant attraction toward. As they descend into carnal pleasures, Marie begins to feel the pangs of jealousy as, sex aside, Alexandre and Marie seem to be getting closer, Alexandre’s love for her deepening.
Characteristic of many French films, this beautiful work of simplicity and black and white speaks on the definitions and changes of love. Whether love is the banality of sitting in silence with one’s lover, sex itself, or the act of lovemaking in order to make a baby, the film provokes existential thoughts of intimacy and love. Similar in theme to Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), we see the women in the film attempting to adapt their natural instinct in order to have sex like a man- that is- seemingly detached and devoid of emotion and consequence. Yet Veronika, who has had many sexual experiences since her 20th birthday, comes to identify sex and love as undeniably separate yet inevitably interlinked: ‘You shouldn’t have sex unless you are in love.’ And, similar to Romance, Veronika comes to the conclusion, in her long, tear-stained monologue, that love and procreation are love relies on procreation: ‘Love is nothing unless you want to make a baby together. If you want that, you feel you love each other. A couple that doesn’t want a baby is no couple.’ In Romance, we see Marie (Caroline Ducey), the protagonist, giving birth while thinking ‘They say you are not a woman until you have a child. It’s true.’ Thus both films stand as a statement on the practicalities and changes of love and of the existentiality of women. Feministic at its core, Veronika asks ‘What is a whore? There are no whores. Only cunts and genitals.’ Despite the subordination, Veronika feels superior in her sex with her greater connection to it.
Yet the underlying statement of love is not this films key strength, but its simplicity in an almost haunting black and white, and its portrayal of the banal and beautiful. We see one scene where Maria, defeated by the seemingly uncontrollable events around her, puts on an Edith Piaf record (Les Amants de Paris), and simply lies there listening to it, the whole thing being played out for us, in lieu of any film score. This is the great achievement of these sorts of films, not merely to pull us away from life into a more bewildering, extraordinary world, but to hold up a mirror to the mediocrity of everyday life in order to present its underlying beauty.
Eustache beautifully crafts this work of art in an era of intermingled identities and bodies in post-60s free love, when the rise of freedom and love altered Parisian life. While the length of the film may dissuade some people from watching it, these four hours and anything but mundane.