Back to Zero: The Experimental Cinema of Jean Eustache

By Michael Sicinski


When a filmmaker’s body of work starts doing the rounds of the cinematheques and museums, it provides an opportunity for re-evaluation or discovery. Even for those of us who are familiar with the cinema of Jean Eustache, the current retrospective, which screens this summer at TIFF Cinematheque and other North American venues, is a substantial reminder that there’s a lot we still don’t know about this singular director. I first encountered Eustache in 2000, when the full retrospective played the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Due to a commercial re-release of La maman et la putain (1973), I was able to see that film twice, and overall I came away with a general impression of Eustache that has, I think, been conventional wisdom for quite some time—that is, in his tragically abbreviated career, Eustache produced one towering masterpiece, a flawed but promising follow-up, and a collection of odds and ends of varying interest. I was also deeply moved by Eustache’s second fiction feature, Mes petites amoureuses (1974), in particular its partial deconstruction of the sentimental coming-of-age narrative, a kind of anti-Truffaut. But its formal approach struck me as something Eustache was still struggling to develop, whereas the self-indicting discursivity of La maman seemed perfectly executed. 

In revisiting the films, I discovered, thankfully, that I am a very different viewer than I was 23 years ago, and I doubt that I am alone in this. Obviously, the film world of 2023 is quite different from that of 2000, or even 2008, when the films circulated again. In the press release for the Lincoln Center series “The Dirty Stories of Jean Eustache,” Les photos d’Alix (1980) is described as “a riff on Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia [sic] that calls back to Eustache’s career-long experiments with representation and reality.” Looking back at the 2000 program notes on the PFA website confirmed my suspicion: there was no mention of Frampton and (nostalgia) (1971) in those notes, because even among the film literati Frampton wasn’t a consideration. He was part of that weird cadre of avant-gardists whose works could safely be ignored. 

This is no longer the case. Like La maman, (nostalgia) is often considered its maker’s most significant, philosophically summative film. More significantly, Frampton and his experimental film cohort are now regarded less as outliers to the broader cinematic tradition than as one strand among film history’s pluralistic braid. With this in mind, it’s a very good time to look again at the career of Jean Eustache, a filmmaker sometimes identified with the Nouvelle Vague (he too began as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma) and at other times considered that movement’s last gasp, the gateway to the post-New Wave of Maurice Pialat, Luc Moullet, and Philippe Garrel. What if, as a thought experiment, we postulated something else—that Eustache was foremost a maker of experimental documentaries, a métier he arrived at after leaving narrative cinema behind?

Many wells of ink have been spilled over La maman over the years; by contrast, Mes petites amoureuses hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It is more than Eustache’s look back in anger at an unhappy childhood: it is an exploration of memory as a kind of unbidden force, the way that seemingly insignificant moments—a harsh word, an embarrassment, the emotional timbre of an environment—become mental flashpoints, metonyms that stand in for the entirely of our personal history. In its concatenation of relatively independent events, each separated from the next by a quick fade-out, Mes petites can be thought of as a tendril connecting Alain Resnais and Pialat. Although the film eschews the random-access element of memory that we find in Resnais, as it presents the pieces of the life of young Henri (Henri Martinez) in chronological order, these shards of memory (which Pialat would dramatize through unexpected temporal ellipses) nevertheless function to create an impression of an autobiography and a sense of self—one comprised, to a large extent, of the gaps between the memories.

Seen in the context of Eustache’s body of work, Mes petites amoureuses is a more radical film that La maman et la putain. In many ways, La maman represents Eustache shedding the blithe sexism and solipsism of his earliest works—Les mauvaises fréquentations (1963) and Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (1966)—much as one’s body sheds the remains of a parasite. Alexandre’s (Jean-Pierre Léaud) self-serving logorrhea is given ample space to deplete itself, and the two primary women in his life end up in a place beyond language: Marie (Bernadette Lafont) crying alone in bed, and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun) vomiting into a hospital trough. By contrast, Mes petites is a film that shuts up and observes, a thread of indelible but disconnected memories that generate the outline of a subject, but never fully cohere. La maman is non-stop monologue, a panicked lunge toward meaning; Mes petites is an atomic field, held together with empty space.

The question of how we come to understand situations and events is ultimately the crux of Eustache’s cinema. In his “minor” works, he explores this in terms of cinematic form, the passage of time, the social use of ritual, and the tenuous distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Instead of treating La maman and Mes petites as the ne plus ultra of Eustache’s cinematic achievement, I prefer to see them as a pair of mutually defining works, one point in a career comprised of complements and oppositions, pairing and halving, repetition and division. While there’s no denying that Eustache’s death deprived us of what might have been one of the key oeuvres of cinema history, he nevertheless left us with a complex and complete set of experimental works, ones we are now perhaps better equipped to understand.


In 1979, Eustache detailed how he arrived at his decision to return to his agriculturally based hometown of Passac to remake a documentary featurette he’d made ten years earlier. The first version of La rosière de Pessac (1969) is a seemingly modest civic document, observing the tradition whereby the mayor and other city officials select and anoint the annual “Virgin of Pessac”—a young woman, usually between 18 and 23 years of age, who was of good moral character, a regular churchgoer, as-yet-unmarried, and in most cases in some sort of financial need. Although the modern tradition (if we can use the word “modern” in this context) was re-established in 1896, thanks to an endowment left by Pessac resident Jean Alexandre Jobert, historical records show that Pessac had honoured its municipal virgins since the reign of Louis XIV.

Upon undertaking to document the ceremony for the second time, Eustache remarked that it was a pity that this ritual hadn’t been filmed every year from the beginning, which was after all only one year later than the invention of cinema itself. So although Eustache only completed two renditions of La rosière de Pessac before his death, the remake suggests that it very well could have been an ongoing project, analogous in its way to Michael Apted’s Up series. When one watches the two versions of La rosière de Pessac, one is struck by similarities and differences. Since there is a very particular shape to the ritual, the differences are firmly contained within a single iterable container. We see the panel discussing prospective candidates in a meeting room at City Hall. They vote, placing folded ballots into the same goblet. They name the winner, and go to the chosen woman’s home en masse to inform her. On the day of the ceremony, there is a parade, a church service, a banquet, and a dance. We can assume that if Eustache (or anyone else) had filmed the ceremony in subsequent years, all these parts would be in place.

The most obvious difference between the 1969 and 1979 films is that the latter is in colour, but this is the least compelling part of the comparison. The first film was made in the immediate aftermath of May ’68—something that is addressed by the city fathers and, most impressively, by the parish priest. While the mayor and the older matrons imply that the Virgin provides a conservative counter-example to the protesters, the priest suggests continuity and understanding. “We must also ponder on the disappointed hopes crystallized by the recent protests of students, workers and peasants,” he says. “In spite of the regrettable excesses of these protests, we are reminded of our Christian values: the primacy of humans over material gain; our officials’ Christian duty to serve men; participation in all of civic life; respect for the poor; concern for the growth of other nations; and world peace.” He concludes, “What is at stake today, let’s admit it, is the whole social order. Yesterday’s structures are no longer adequate for today’s needs.”

In the 1979 version, the discussion is a bit different: the priest’s homily is about the importance of work for a sense of belonging, and he decries the rampant unemployment in France. He and the mayor also comment on the changing face of Pessac. “We may need to change the rules,” the mayor says, regarding the Virgin’s duty to honor a local farmer, “because we may have trouble finding a farmer”; the priest, meanwhile, thanks the assembled townspeople for “coming down from your high-rises to meet us here, no easy task.” What the two La rosière de Pessacs demonstrate is that Eustache identified a space of political ambivalence within this ceremony, offering a micro-sociological example of the sorts of civic institutions in which Frederick Wiseman has similarly found political ambivalence. An essentially conservative tradition—a Christian beauty pageant cum “queen for a day” charity project—can provide a sense of community cohesion, such that the challenges of the day can be addressed head-on. The act of repetition, the performance of tradition, provides a framework for common-sense Christian-left thinking.

Between the two Pessac films, Eustache engaged in a somewhat different form of repetition by making Une sale histoire (1977), which is comprised of two films based around the telling of the same story: one a document of the original storyteller (Jean-Noël Picq) recounting the events as they (ostensibly) happened to him, the other a performance of said story by an actor (Michael Lonsdale). The “original” documentary was shot in 16mm, while the “fictional” film is in 35mm, but allowing for this and other minor differences the setting, blocking, and arrangement of listeners is mostly the same. Both versions also include recognizable actors as interlocutors: Françoise Lebrun and Virginie Thévenet in the first, Jean Douchet and Laurie Zimmer in the second.

A viewer going into Une sale histoire would really need to know that one part of the diptych was a performance (in the conventionally understood sense), as there is virtually no way to tell which is which. A crucial part of Eustache’s duplication experiment is the fact that the story, as related by Picq, constitutes a deeply self-indicting confession: by chance, he discovered that a local café had a peephole into the women’s toilet which, by virtue of its angle and architectural arrangement, provided a direct view of women’s vaginas while they urinated. At first looking just as a curiosity, Picq describes becoming more and more fixated on peeping at the women’s privates, and develops a fetish in the classic Freudian sense, becoming more and more incapable of attaining sexual arousal in any other way. (He had a girlfriend at the time, but he dismisses her vagina as “domesticated” and therefore no longer enticing.)

On the most basic level, Une sale histoire is an experiment regarding cinematic truth. Since both versions of the film involve similar organization and découpage, and are equally convincing, there is no way for a viewer to discern spontaneous speech from performance. This of course leads us to question whether the “documentary” version is any truer or less scripted than the fictional segment, or even whether Picq’s “dirty story” is even real. However, while some viewers undoubtedly find the Peeping Tom account unsavoury, the broader philosophical stakes of Une sale histoire could not be achieved in any other way. This is because what Picq is offering, and what Lonsdale is pretending to offer, is nothing less than confession. In terms of social behaviour, the act is revolting; in religious terms, it is a sin; and in psychoanalytic terms, it is perversion. As Foucault has shown us, the proper functioning of our dominant institutions relies on the rhetorically verifiable status of the confession: at church, in the workplace, on the analyst’s couch, or in police custody. And while the confession is by nature subject to repetition (“Let’s go over this one more time…”), the inability to distinguish the true from the false confession—a slippage that cinema aids and abets—undermines all regimes of control.


This provides a lens for reconsidering Eustache’s final three films. Each one takes a different approach regarding the use of cinema to destabilize apparent social meaning. The aforementioned Les photos d’Alix is presented as something like an artist’s talk: the photographer, Alix Cléo Roubaud, is going through her portfolio, showing pictures to Eustache’s son Boris and discussing the images one by one. The comparison with Frampton’s (nostalgia) is apt, in the sense that in both films there is an unavoidable discrepancy between what we see and what we are told we are seeing. Frampton, the methodical structuralist, establishes a regularity in the discrepancies: we hear the narrator (Michael Snow) describe the next image we will see, so that word and image are always exactly one beat out of phase. 

Les photos d’Alix, by contrast, is arguably the more radical film, as what it presents isn’t “straight photography:” many of the images we see are overexposed, or use darkroom techniques that produce abstractions. As a result, it’s not always clear what we’re seeing, and so this initially makes us doubt our eyes when the descriptions don’t match up. (Why don’t I see the antique bed? Is the building too small to make out?) But as the film proceeds, it becomes evident that there is no connection whatsoever between the images onscreen and Alix’s description of them. The “interior of a typical English pub” is a woman lying across a white expanse; the “landscape in Corsica” is a man at his desk. Whereas Une sale histoire and La rosière de Pessac use repetition to reveal fissures in conventional meaning, Les photos d’Alix simply separates sound and image, unsuturing a connection that has been fundamental to cinema since the arrival of sound in 1929.

This complicated relationship between sound and image is explored from a quite different angle in Eustache’s penultimate film. Commissioned by INA as part of Les enthousiastes, a series in which laypeople address their favourite works of art, Le jardin des délices de Jérôme Bosch (1981) is a casual art lesson that slowly drifts into the abyss. Working once again with Jean-Nöel Picq, Eustache films the man with a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting in his lap, speaking with three interlocutors about what he finds in the artwork. Their limited engagement with Picq—asking the occasional question, but mostly staying quiet—directly mirrors that of the supporting players in Un sale histoire, and Le jardin is indeed another “dirty story” in a way. As Picq describes various scenes and details in the Bosch painting, we see that in fact his descriptions are quite precise and accurate: “Here we have a monk with the head of a rabbit;” “Here is a pig dressed as a nun,” etc. 

But over the course of the 33-minute program, Picq never really moves beyond this fragmented ekphrasis. We never see the entire The Garden of Earthly Delights—Eustache gives us only details, and Picq verbally articulates those details. Eventually, Picq explains his anti-analytic approach: “There is no meaning, there is no sense, either going or returning…There is no difference between the outward journey or the return.” At different points, Picq makes reference to a hollow pig torso, calling it a “body without organs,” and spends some time focusing on the various anuses that serve as intake and expulsive valves. “There is no perspective, no space” in the painting, and Picq, following a line of flight from his explicitly Deleuzean language, eventually concludes that The Garden of Earthly Delights is a painting of chaos, one that cannot hang together formally or conceptually to produce any coherent meaning. Where Les photos d’Alix unmoored image from sound to disrupt our faith in cinematic truth, Le jardin merely describes what we see, to the letter, to show us that Bosch has generated an ontologically fissured, unstable field.

In Eustache’s final film, also commissioned by INA, the division between forms of meaning, between sound and sense, is no longer merely a formal problem—rather, the destabilization of meaning becomes a social and economic problem. Asked to make a short film about work, Eustache responded with Offre d’emploi (1982), in which an unemployed man (Michel Delahaye) goes to an employment office to try to get a job. As the intake clerk (Rosine Young) explains, the position is in what we’d now call C2C (company-to-company) sales: an industrial firm is moving their headquarters, and is looking to expand their sales force. The applicant explains that he has experience in this area, but that his previous employer went out of business. At the end of the interview, he is told (as are the other applicants) to submit a formal application, with a handwritten cover letter.

It’s at this point that the shift occurs. We discover that the firm is having the applications vetted by an industrial psychologist and graphologist (Michèle Moretti), who is looking not at their statements or resumes but rather their handwriting samples. She mutters to herself and takes copious notes, which are then handed back to the intake clerk, who presents the findings to the Director (Jean Douchet): we learn that this applicant shows defiant tendencies, whereas that applicant appears docile and servile, etc. The film’s formal bait-and-switch is here committed not only against the viewer, but also the applicant character himself (who is quickly cut from the pile), since he has no reason to expect that his application will be largely decided on the basis of pseudoscience. Offre d’emploi is a deceptively plainspoken final film—beneath the rather starchy performances and mundane mise en scène, Eustache gives us a bitter, Kafkaesque look at capitalist relations, an eerie, unexpected hybrid of Moullet and Harun Farocki. The separation of appearance from reality, of language from meaning, is now complete.


“A cinematic author should assume a role of non-intervention, the reverse of a dramatic author who creates. A cinema author should be there to stop others from taking control, not to impose his own will. Wherever the camera turns, that’s cinema.” This quote from Eustache, among several others, appears in Ángel Díez’s 1997 documentary La peine perdue de Jean Eustache. It is an interesting film in its own right, not only because Díez speaks with many of Eustache’s major collaborators, but also because the director seems more intrigued by what Eustache refrained from doing than in what he did, per se. (The documentary takes its title from a treatment for a film that Eustache never made.) Elsewhere in the film, we hear a passage by Eustache in which he claims that he wanted to make films as basic and unpretentious as the Lumière brothers, that his only ambition was to build his cinema from the ground up.

When we consider the way that Eustache’s later films dislodge expected forms of cinematic meaning, it places his documentaries from the early ’70s in a different light. Numéro zero (1971) and Le cochon (1970, co-directed with Jean-Michel Barjol) are observational documentaries, shot with sync sound and committed to a rather direct form of filmic communication: Le cochon documents the slaughter of a large pig by a group of peasants; Numéro zero is an extended interview with Eustache’s grandmother, Odette Robert. While it is possible to see the films as comparably naive when compared to Eustache’s later, more overtly complex works, they are actually about a different ontological problem, one explored from the side of the filmmaker rather than the viewer. 

For Le cochon, Eustache and Barjol each filmed the same event, but worked independently of one another; while they agreed to produce a fairly straight documentation of the slaughter, inevitably the two men focused on different details, gestures, and spaces. The two strands of footage were then edited together to make a single film, one in which the different approaches of the two artists are not especially evident. But if we think about Eustache as attempting a neo-Lumièrian cinema, Le cochon demonstrates how such a project both is and is not possible. Yes, the film adheres to a direct-cinema aesthetic, working to provide a clear documentation of slaughtering the pig; however, the cinema-author can never entirely efface themselves, because no two filmmakers will see the world in the same way. (“I am my point of view,” Eustache remarked.) Le cochon is a film divided against itself in conception, but a greater, plural whole in execution.

By contrast, Numéro zero is the film in which Eustache perhaps best realized his desire to create cinema in its most basic, even primitive form. Although it owes quite a lot to direct cinema and that movement’s interest in portraiture, the film is closest in approach to Andy Warhol’s unedited camera rolls. Eustache has two 16mm cameras, one positioned over his shoulder and trained on his grandmother at the kitchen table, the other focused on Odette in close-up. Although Eustache produced Numéro zero by editing the two strands of footage into a single film, we know that the entire interview was recorded in its entirety by both cameras. Since both camera operators let the shots run until the end of the film reel, the A-roll and B-roll have the same runtime, and could have been projected alongside each other as a dual-screen work. 

But Eustache’s experiment was not merely formal. Where the timing was determined by the length of the film rolls, the trajectory of the interview was determined by the movement of Odette’s recollections. With minimal prompting, she talks at length about her unhappy childhood, and sometimes recounts events from the time she spent raising Eustache. A sort of conceptual rough draft for Mes petites amoureuses, Numéro zero clears the decks of all cinematic virtuosity in order to provide a direct representation of the mental reconstruction of a biography: Odette moves chronologically, then switches to another time track, only to later return to her previous train of thought. True to its name, Numéro zéro uses film as an objective record of an unavoidably subjective process.

As a final note, it is worth comparing Numéro zéro, Eustache’s simplest film, with La maman et la putain, his most complicated one. Where Léaud’s fictional Alexandre speaks endlessly in order to construct an exterior sense of self, trying to figure out who he is through a self-administered talking cure, Odette can recount the various abuses and betrayals that made her who she is, acknowledging the pain but describing events as blunt facts. If, as is generally assumed, La maman et la putain is an autobiographical film, Eustache spins himself into oblivion, discovering only the lack of self. But by listening to his grandmother, by watching her narrate the flashes of memory that coalesced into the person he loved above all others, he found his cinema.