THE THREAD

The director Jean Eustache was found dead Wednesday/Thursday night in Paris.

The death of Jean Eustache shocked but it didn't surprise. His friends said he was suicidal. He held on to life only by a small number of threads, so solid that one thought them unbreakable. The desire for cinema was one of these threads. The desire not to have to film at any cost was another. This desire was a luxury and Eustache knew it. He would pay the price.

It's not much to say that he was born to cinema with the Nouvelle Vague, a little bit after it, but with the same refusals and admirations. It's not much to say that he was an "auteur," his cinema was mercilessly personal. That is to say, mercilessly tied up with his experience, to alcohol, to love. Filling up his life in order to make the material of his films was his only moral code but it was a moral code of iron. The films came when he was strong enough to make them come, to bring back what he made in life.

In the thread of the desolate 70s, his films succeeded one another, always unforeseen, without a system, without a gap: film-rivers, short films, TV programs, hyperreal fiction. Each film went to the end of its material, from real to fictional sorrow. It was impossible for him to go against it, to calculate, to take cultural success into account, impossible for this theoretician of seduction to seduce an audience.

The audience was with him once, when he made the most beautiful French film of the decade, THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE. Without him, we would have no face to set to the memory of the lost children of May Ô68: lost, already aging, talkative and old-fashioned. (Bernardette) Lafont, (Jean-Pierre) Léaud and especially Françoise Lebrun, her black shawl and her stubborn voice. Without him, nothing would have remained of them.

An ethnologist of his own reality, Eustache could have made a career, become a good auteur, with fantasies and a vision of the world, a specialist of some sort in himself. His moral code prohibited it: he only filmed what interested him. Women, dandyism, Paris, the country and the French language. It's already a lot.

Like a painter knowing that he'd never quite finish, he never cased returning to the same motif, using cinema not like a mirror (that's for the good directors) but like the needle of a seismograph (that's for the greats). The public, one moment seduced, would forget this perverse ethnography that had the bad manners to keep coming. An artist and nothing but an artist (he didn't know how to do anything except make films), he held to the contrary the speech of an artisan, simultaneously more modest and proud. The artisan weighs everything, evaluates everything, takes on everything, memorizes everything. Thus Eustache worked.

One year, some Moroccan friends had organized a complete retrospective of his work in Tangier. A strange idea. A brilliant idea. All the reels, the heaviness, the age, the rust, the incredible number of kilograms that THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE represents were put into a diplomatic case, crossed the sea and found themselves in front of assiduous Moroccan cine-clubgoers. Would Eustache come? It was difficult to make him leave Paris, we thought. But he came and remained two days. The projection of the Eustachian opus took place, outside of time, for this audience, unprepared for all these stories of sex and desire, of the French countryside and the fauna of Montparnasse, was disconcerted. Eustache would disconcert them even more. His mildness, his patience and his manner of responding to questions with an indecipherable mix of irony and gravity, surprised everyone.

Tangier wasn't Paris nor the port cafes the Closerie de Lilas, but we searched for a late bar to have a beer and talk about cinema. Eustache spoke of his masters, with whom he didn't compare himself, of Pagnol and Renoir, these other artisans who came before him. I will never forget the way in which he made them live again in his language, shot by shot, with his accent. It shocked but didn't surprise. Eustache resembled his times too much to be comfortable. He ended by losing. Too bad for us.

Originally published in LIBERATION November 16, 1981.

Translated by Steve Erickson.