A family portrait in which the director profiles his grandmother.
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).
Odette Robert, who was seventy-one, speaks rapidly and lucidly, and tells the story of her life, starting from her early childhood in villages in the Bordeaux region. She tells stories of poignant, fleeting charm—of her first seven years, before her mother’s untimely death. Most of the rest of the story of her life is horror and pain broken only by absurdity. Her father remarried and her stepmother was a classic monster, cold, selfish, and brutal. She married at sixteen and had three children in three years, then another; three of those children died young. (She describes, in terrible detail, the effects on local children of epidemic diseases such as diphtheria.) Her husband—who lost an eye after two weeks of combat in the First World War—was a serial philanderer who faced charges for having sex with a thirteen-year-old, then, later, contracted syphilis. Odette, who had been a good (if insubordinate) student (who, when reprimanded by the principal, bit her on the nose and the cheek, scarring her for life), ended her schooling at fourteen and worked in a factory; she wore ragged hand-me-down clothing and men’s wooden clogs. During the Second World War, her daughter lay dangerously ill with peritonitis in German-occupied Biarritz and she needed to apply to the authorities for a visit—a process that took a month. Her younger brother was interned in a concentration camp and came out broken by the experience.
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.
913MB | 1h 52mn | 757×568 | mkv