March 15, 2016
Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (Mes petites amoureuses, 1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls, and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahiers du Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast. My Little Loves is screening on 35mm in the Metrograph’s Jean Eustache series, one of the inaugural programs for this ambitious new theater on NYC’s Lower East Side.
Eustache had long wanted to make My Little Loves, but it was only after the relative success of The Mother and the Whore (which won the Grand Jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival), that he was able to secure funding. The film follows the loose outline of Eustache’s own youth: Daniel (Martin Loeb) begins the film living with his grandmother (Jacqueline Dufranne) in Pessac. His days unwind over long country roads, where he shoots cap guns at girls who ignore him, and at school, where he punches the tallest, and meekest, kid in class, just because he can. Then Daniel’s mother (Ingrid Caven) floats into town with her sullen new Spanish lover José (Dionys Mascolo). She is going to take him to Narbonnes, a gritty industrial town in which Daniel will be pulled from school and given a job as a handyman’s assistant. The wide open spaces of Pessac become cramped alleyways, and Daniel escapes into cinema and girl chasing with the layabouts at the nearby cafe. Pessac is a promise that is not kept, and My Little Loves is about Daniel adapting to his own solitude.
Moullet wrote in Film Comment that, “Grandparents played an important role in the lives of many French filmmakers during this period. The generation born in the Twenties often sent their children to the countryside to live with their grandparents: this allowed the children to be better fed during the German Occupation, and the parents to enjoy life immediately after the war. The result was a reverence for grandparents and a rejection of the father and mother – a crisis that fertilized a number of artistic careers.” As in the film, Eustache was born in 1938 in Pessac, raised by his grandmother, and moved to Narbonnes with his mother when he was around 12-years-old. The grandmother in the film is presented as a figure of love and light, indulgent and comforting. Sunlight streams through her rural home, one which is kept clean and precise with fastidious care. Daniel, feeling safe in this care, begins to push the boundaries of his childhood. His playfulness is getting ever more violent. Martin Loeb’s performance as Daniel is one of uncanny calm, his wide-set eyes surveying the scene. But even though we are given some of his thoughts in voice-over, they are always ambivalent or self-mortifying. He is as uncertain about his true self as we are – so we just look alongside him at his childhood haunts: there is a the perfect climbing tree in an isolated field, or the bustling market in the square with one precious ice cream vendor.
His mother comes to usher him out of this childhood reverie and into the harsh reality of his situation. As Eustache did, Daniel comes from a working class family, and his mother has hit hard times. His father is missing (or dead), and she is scrounging up money doing odd sewing jobs. José is a manual laborer in seasonal farm work, seeming too tired to speak. Daniel moves into their cramped one bedroom apartment, sleeping on a mat on the floor. He cannot attend school because his mom cannot afford the textbooks. The wallpaper is curled and the smell of mildew emanates off the screen. They are too busy working to take notice of him, so Daniel takes refuge in the streets and in the cinemas – places where you can be alone in groups. He sits in the balcony for the rapturously romantic Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, a makeout spot for idle teens eager to work out their tongues. His other bad influence are the layabouts at his neighborhood cafe, including one slickly rich dick who carries 5,000 francs on him at all times in a leather satchel, enough for two “peppermint jet” drinks a day and for wooing random girls who pass by.
If he’s not at the movies or slouching at the cafe, he’s at work tinkering with motor bikes at a repair shop operated by José’s brother. Daniel is paying some kind of family debt he is never privy to, working as a virtual servant for little to no pay, all for the pleasure of put downs by the owner and his friends, including a cameo by Maurice Pialat (a similarly dyspeptic director – read Nick Pinkerton on “The Second New Wave” at Metrograph’s lovely site for more on their relationship), who weeps for the immature, uneducated youth of the day. For the most part Eustache and Almendros keep the camera unobtrusive, letting the locations and the actors tell their story – but occasionally they are enraptured by faces. There are two bravura sequences that slow down Eustache’s process of remembrance, as if he is stopping and savoring these pockets of time. One is a slow dolly of the cafe, rolling past the bored, antsy, dissolute young men waiting for the day to pass or an event to happen (there is usually a dance, or a party, or a pinball game). The later, more extended one happens at a performance of a girls’ choir, which Daniel happens to stumble into on a lazy afternoon. Eustache pans past the faces of the choir, and their faces encompass the world: there is irony, joy, boredom, studiousness, and passion. Though Eustache obsessively details this moment, Daniel can only see the girl to his right, and the opportunity to briefly caress female flesh. His mind has been taken over with lust, and it is pursued with religious intensity (early in the film, Daniel presses himself up against a girl during his Communion procession). The final sequences find Daniel back home in Pessac, on vacation. His old friends are still kids, while Daniel has aged irrevocably into adolescence. This is a loss that cannot be recovered, and Eustache renders it with eloquent, bone-deep sadness.