Discussions of French cinema always seem to come back to the New Wave era of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and with good reason. The brash, groundbreaking movement, led by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, was not merely an upheaval of France’s staid cinematic conventions, but a liberating wake-up call to filmmakers around the world, producing some of the most enduring films in the medium’s history. That being said, French film by no means begins and ends with the Nouvelle Vague, and when the movement began to peter out at the end of the 60s (or much earlier depending on who you ask), there was some question as to what the future would look like. Into this uncertain space stepped uncompromising filmmaker Jean Eustache, who absorbed the innovations of the Cahiers du cinema crowd as well as the highlights of the tradition they were rebelling against, and reconfigured them into something original and distinctive, helping to define what French cinema would look like, post-New Wave.
Though he was a prolific creator of shorts and documentaries, Eustache, born in Pessac, France in 1938, completed just two narrative features before tragically taking his own life in 1981. The first, La Maman et la Putain (“The Mother and the Whore”) hit theatres in 1973 to great acclaim. Yet, even if critics and audiences were impressed with the unforgiving and antagonistic character study of three disaffected Parisian twenty-somethings, the candid, outspoken Eustache was never shy about revealing how the film was born out of frustration and anger over his career and the industry. “The main reason I never liked The Mother and the Whore was because I felt provoked and attacked when I made it…” he explained, “The fury with which I made the film was assimilated into its structure and theme.” In fact, one of the only reasons he made the film was because it could be done on a relatively low budget, 700,000 Francs, while he continued to raise a more substantial sum, 25,000,000 Francs, for the film he really wanted to make, Mes Petites Amoureuses (“My Little Loves”).
When the film was finally released in 1974, it didn’t cause as much of a stir as La Maman et la Putain, widely considered his masterpiece, but Mes Petites Amoureuses is nonetheless a moving and personal film, drawn from the directors own youth in Southern France. It follows its pubescent protagonist Daniel as he takes his first tentative steps toward understanding what sex is and the part in plays in adult relationships and western society in general. The loneliness and confusion of his development is compounded by his lack of a father figure, or at least one worth having. At the outset of the film, Daniel is being raised by his Grandmother in an idyllic small town, but is soon sent for by his semi-estranged mother, a bitter and troubled woman who wants him to live with her in a busy southern city. At first he seems excited to bond with his mother’s new beau, a taciturn Spanish farmworker, but soon finds himself rebuffed when the man shows little interest in mentoring the boy. The other adult males Daniel comes into contact with are no better; when his mother refuses to send him to school and instead gets him a job at a moped repair shop, his elder bosses seem more interested in stamping out his curiosity and potential than nurturing it, leading Daniel to look for role-models among girl-crazy boys barely older than he is.
It’s an honest and unflinching portrayal of the inner turmoil of adolescence, one filled with great performances, particularly from Martin Loeb, who brings a restraint and nuance beyond his years to the role of Daniel, but, in context, it also illuminates where French cinema had been up to this point and where it was going from here. As stylistically off-the-wall as many of the New Wave films were, it’s tone was never homogenous or set in stone, and Eustache’s film does bear traces of the quieter end of the genre, specifically the work of one of its main geniuses, Truffaut. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby likened Daniel to “a slightly younger first cousin to Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel,” the fictional character whose life the iconic director followed through a number of films, starting with his classic debut, adding that Eustache’s creation is “the way Antoine might have been when Antoine was somewhere between ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Love at 20.’” Additionally, the film frequently refers to the medium itself, a self-reflexivity which was one of the hallmarks of the Nouvelle Vague. It never breaks the fourth wall or anything as audacious as that, but a number of pivotal scenes take place in the dark of a theatre or linger under the marquee.
However, if lines can be drawn between Mes Petites Amoureuses and the New Wave canon, it doesn’t reject out of hand the more established filmmaking techniques that they broke away from so totally. It’s not self-important or overly-literary like those films belonging to “the Tradition of Quality”, a French style which was revered before Truffaut turned the term into a viciously sarcastic condemnation in the pages of Cahiers, but it does show echoes of the kind of poetic realism that dominated until Truffaut, Godard and company came along and blew everything up, focusing as it does on doomed, lovelorn characters who reach out beyond themselves only to find nothing there. The film also eschews many of the pacing and editing styles of the New Wave, particularly the jump cuts so closely associated with Jean-Luc Godard, preferring longer shots which drink in Daniel’s shifting environments and the objects of his affections, as well as limiting the function of the editing to communicating the passage of time and little else (although there is one iris shot, a silent era technique revived by Truffaut and his contemporaries, that sticks out like a sore thumb).
To say that Eustache cherry-picked elements from the entire history of French film and then incorporated them into his style gives the impression that his work is nothing more than self-conscious pastiche, which is wholly incorrect. Though the director was famously finicky about getting things just the way he wanted them (noted film critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum admiringly called him “obsessive-compulsive”), his filmmaking was much more guided by instinct than calculation. “If I knew exactly what I wanted to say in a film it would not be interesting,” he said, “I find I begin to get interested when I am unable to name something, when I cannot define.” The signposts we can see in something like Mes Petites Amoureuses are interesting, but not even close to the whole picture. He internalized a number of elements from French cinema’s rich history, as anybody enmeshed in that culture would, but the work he created belonged completely to its era and had an identity all its own.