Playing Fri Aug 5 at 6:45 & Fri Aug 12 at 9:15 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]
There is limited coverage of cinema martyr Jean Eustache’s self-proclaimed first film, part of Anthology’s “Talking Head” series running through August 17. The film was not made readily available until the last few years; director Pedro Costa hand-selected it to screen in a series he curated for Anthology last November. An ultra-rare stateside screening of Eustache’s highly personal work is truly a special event.
Richard Brody for The New Yorker:
Almost the entire hour and three-quarters of Jean Eustache’s 1971 film “Numéro Zéro”— is filled with the director’s interview of his grandmother Odette Robert on Feb. 12th of that year. Eustache includes in the film the conditions of its production—the director himself is seated at the table with her, pours her some whiskey, speaks with the camera operator, manipulates the clapboard at the head and tail of the reels, and even takes a phone call from a foreign firm that wants to distribute one of his early short films. Odette Robert had come from her home in the provinces to live with Eustache in Paris and help care for his son Boris (who is seen, at the beginning of the film, helping guide her through the streets of Paris—she had recently had eye operations and had to wear dark lenses, including on-camera).
Although every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Odette Robert recounts a life story that, in its personal details, is the story of twentieth-century Europe; many women her age could tell many similar stories; and, of her stories and their general application, Eustache would make the glorious work of a lifetime: the three-and-a-half-hour-long “The Mother and the Whore,” which he shot in Paris in the summer of 1972. Although that dramatic feature, about the life and loves of a confused young Parisian intellectual (Jean-Pierre Léaud) seems to have little to do with this documentary, its peculiar reversion—Eustache’s apparent attempt not to refer to the populist cinema of the nineteen-thirties but to reanimate it—appears now to be a direct and intentional effort to confront and to film, from a contemporary perspective, the moral and emotional sediment of the howlingly harsh lives upon which the modern world is built.
Eustache’s impatience with the frivolous hedonism of post-’68 Paris rests on his understanding of the blood and anguish that the city’s stones embody; in the light of “Numéro Zéro,” Eustache (whose 1974 feature “Mes Petites Amoureuses” goes to a village and attempts to extract the latent emotional loam) seems like something of a cinematic archeologist, who looks into and through the images of his times to extract the living history in a desperate attempt to confront, honor, and exorcise it—and perhaps even to revive it, to the extent that, even in its agonies, he acknowledges the unlikeliness that life would ever be so full again.
Steve Erickson for Indiewire:
A starkly minimalist interview with his grandmother, it showcases Eustache’s ability to make fascinating cinema out of little more than conversation. It also takes in a good portion of 20th-century French history. I wonder if there are any films this good being made now, only to premiere here in 39 years.
Eustache was not like Renoir or Bresson or Godard or even Pialat; ‘human content’ was not a ne plus ultra for him. From early on, his work pushed into a conceptual direction: the unflinchingly minimalist portrait of his grandmother in Numéro zero (1971), the twin documentaries of La Rosière de Pessac (1968/79), raw reality revisited and recast as a ritual mise en scène … leading to the magisterial experiments in staged/performed actuality in Une sale histoire (1977) and his final, severe short films.
From the provocative stench of the lived gutter to the hard form of a filmic dispositif: Eustache never ceased to challenge us with these experimental extremes, these twin cultural scandals, and their hybrid, surprising combinations. He is still challenging us today, from the grave, from an after-life in which he would never have let himself believe.
David Norman Rodowick in The Virtual Life of Film:
Numéro Zéro is a film of passing time and the powers of time’s passing. The recorded space of the film itself multiples signs of elapsed time. Eustache and Odette drink whiskey: the bottle and glasses gradually empty; the bowl of ice gradually melts […] The quality of Odette’s speech is equally important. Her flow of speech is also an index of elapsing time. She recounts confidently but rapidly in a near-continuous stream. She pauses on cue for the slate, and then continues without missing a beat, or a memory. One feels that it is a filmic speech somehow, reproducing memory at a continuous pace and in a continuous duration. In this way, Numéro Zérodocuments film’s affinity for two types of duration. On one hand, there is memory or historical testimony, whose medium is speech. Odette’s testimony presents a disjunct chronology, whose continuous leaps in time are as complex and orderly as any early film by Alain Resnais. Most important here is the historical uniqueness of Odette’s witnessing, expressed as the film’s evocation of a nonrepeatable past redoubled in the act of the filming, itself structured as a nonrepeatable event. On the other, there is “real time,” this is, continuous duration recorded uninterrupted by two cameras in a way that preserves the singularity of the passing present. In the course of the film Odette is interrupted midsentence as the phone rings. Visibly surprised, Eustache nonetheless answers and is elated to discovery that the call is from Dutch television wanting to buy one of his films. This unforeseen disruption of the course of filming is one more expression of the film’s impossible parti pris: that no event should be lost, no matter how transitory or happenstance.
Eustache considered the film a deeply personal project and did not envision showing it to the general public. On completion, the full version was shown only once, to eight friends (one of whom was Jean-Marie Straub, who later “rediscovered” the film) in Eustache’s apartment on the rue Mollet in the eighteenth arrondissement. Odette died three years after the shot; Eustache took his own life in 1981. But the question remains: Why is this film important now? Because it expresses so clearly yet complexly, in its aesthetic structure, film’s profound affinity with historical documentation and testimony. In this respect, Numéro Zéro is much closer to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) than is it to something like Warhol’s Empire (1964). This conceit or folly of wanting to film uninterrupted duration is a way of showing that (real) time is neither homogeneous nor continuous. Certainly, the film documents a presence and a memory conveyed through voice; but it also documents passing time as embedded in a space – the precious conservation of time and memory in small and fragile fragments of space that time will always overwhelm, for both Odette and Eustache are dead. Producing (invisible) memory in a visual medium, the actual perceptible space of the film is also continuously passing into the virtuality of the past in general. It produces duration for us, and it includes us in a duration equivalent to that of the events so transcribed. Numéro Zéro presents an experience of time not unlike that characterized by Roland Barthes.
Martine Pierquin on Eustache for Sight & Sound:
“You have to record things; whether they’re pretty or not, they’re important” — Jean Eustache. One of the key figures in post-New Wave French cinema, Jean Eustache has influenced a great number of film-makers worldwide. Pedro Costa in Portugal, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas in France, Hong Sang-Soo in South Korea, Jim Jarmusch in the US, to name a few, have acknowledged his work as a source of inspiration.
Despite its sociological and autobiographical qualities, the cinema of Eustache transcends one-dimensional realism. When the French magazine Telerama described his films as part of a new naturalist trend in 1970s French cinema, Eustache strongly disagreed. Indeed, his privileging of static camera shots with direct and diegetic sound (an approach described by critic Michel Chion as “neo-Lumière-ist”) is a style apart both from the New Wave’s virtuoso camerawork and audacious editing and from any new social-realist trend. It is more a longing for a bygone era of primitive cinema when such effects were yet to be discovered. As Eustache confides in Angel Diaz’s documentary La Peine Perdue De Jean Eustache (The Lost Sorrows of Jean Eustache, 1997), “Quand la camera tourne, le cinéma se fait” (“When the camera’s on, cinema is happening”). Ultimately this is all is really needed for cinema to happen.