“I read a book about this guy’s high school years. He said his French professor really made him sick. When he lectured about passion in the works of Racine and Corneille, he said the same things year after year. Finally the words had no sense, no heart. That professor had no business talking about passion. He knew the plays inside-out, but he’d never lived them, whereas the student felt he would live those passions, later on. Any opinion?”

This is the longest continuous piece of dialogue spoken by the child actor Martin Loeb in Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses (My Little Loves, 1974), and it distinguishes itself from his other lines for a number of reasons. First: because Loeb’s character, Daniel, is usually quite taciturn, both in his sullen, expressionless look and in his reticence to say very much at length. Second: because Daniel has not to this point made such an incisive connection between art and life as with the mention of this (unnamed, unidentifiable) book – despite being an inveterate filmgoer, nothing in the theatres has so far suggested itself to the boy as an allegory for what he himself is going through (facing the prospect of learning outside of any formal schooling). Third: because of an anomaly in editing, which has Loeb repeat the first few words – “Dans un livre que j’ai lu” (“I read a book”) – initially in a two shot with a friend and then in a close-up from another angle, before he continues to recount the episode from the book.

The first two oddities of the scene might be attributed to the fragmented process of Daniel’s maturation within the narrative, but the last is quite unexpected; so much so, in fact, that Nicole Brenez once nominated this single cut as a departure from the film’s realism, and one that perhaps takes Eustache’s work closer to the defamiliarisation of Jean-Luc Godard than of the classicism of Robert Bresson.1 Whether an accident of the editing process or a deliberate attempt to interrupt the flow of Daniel’s speech, a more prosaic explanation also offers itself to us, and is confirmed in the image below: the dialogue was simply too extensive for Martin Loeb to commit it all to memory, and so one of Eustache’s assistants held a large sheet of paper in front of the fifteen-year-old debutant so that he could simply recite the words as written. Although the presence of this rudimentary prompt does not fully explain the strangeness of the edit, it is clear that the change in camera angle was here necessitated by an eyeline match that would permit Loeb to look both at his friend (incidentally, a different friend in the final cut as compared to the one captured behind the scenes by the stills photographer Pierre Zucca) and at the words on the sheet, and it is fairly clear on re-watching the scene that the young actor is scanning the lines as he speaks. The professor in Daniel’s book provides an object lesson in the perils of rote learning (and teaching), but it is a lesson that is itself read verbatim.

Collection Christophel © Pierre Zucca

Loeb’s precise attention to the words was paramount here, and his performance in this scene articulates a high degree of sympathy for the careful labour of the screenwriting process: it had apparently taken the director more than six years to write his film, during which time he had worked on the same opening ten lines periodically.2 Small wonder, then, that Eustache would “never allow the actors to improvise, to speak themselves”!3 This meticulous preservation of dialogue had perhaps already revealed itself in his far more talkative debut feature La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973), of which Eustache remarked of the relative veteran Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance that “his speech is premeditated, his tone is monotonous because he re-reads a thought already inscribed”.4 But unlike Léaud, whose logorrhoea dominates that film, Loeb’s comparative inexperience – and strength instead in the consolidation of expression and gesture – marks his delivery of the lines above as a “monotonous” re-reading in a more literal sense. Loeb the actor recites the lines presented before him, while Daniel the character also recalls the literary passage in an almost mechanical fashion, reaching into his anecdotal storehouse à la Léaud in a manner that does not quite mesh with his mode of expression as we know it. Perhaps, in a way, we are even brought back here to Antoine Doinel’s slavish reproduction of a passage from Balzac’s The Quest of the Absolute in Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, 1959) – a case of transparent plagiarism that is ominously preceded by the accidental burning of the boy’s altar to the master secretary of French society, and which ends in Doinel’s expulsion from school?

Howsoever the scene might resonate, my point in demystifying this peculiar moment within My Little Loves is to emphasise that some of the key aspects of the film are articulated here in miniature, in the curious weave of diegesis and production process – especially as concerns acts of repetition and imitation across the planes of the profilmic and fictional worlds – and in the overlaps between the character and his actor, and between the character/actor and his director.

Collection Christophel © Pierre Zucca

In a most obvious way, such correspondences are the direct product of the film’s biographical narrative, for Daniel’s story is the story of Eustache’s own childhood. A boy from a working-class family on the outskirts of Bordeaux is raised by his grandmother, moves to be with his mother in Narbonne on the other side of the country, and becomes a bike mechanic’s apprentice instead of continuing his secondary schooling. Without a curriculum to guide him, Daniel’s understanding of the world (and especially of sex) is gleaned from the adolescents who orbit about him, and his experience of small-town life – subject to the particular confines of his class position – is produced through the studied imitation of his peers.

Collection Christophel © Pierre Zucca

The typicality of this process for any child – the rehearsals of learned gestures, speech acts, and social interactions – is, in Daniel’s narrative, marked all the more clearly as discrete chapters of lived experience, often demarcated by fades to black that mollify any unresolved tensions that may arise. His methodical reckoning with the things he sees and hears around him is, for Daniel, most commonly articulated in a series of considered repetitions that reproduce or fail to reproduce the original observed action. Aside from taking up smoking, modifying his dress and prowling the promenade along with the rest of Narbonne’s citizens, Daniel’s mimicry extends to a litany of more complex situations:

  • Outside of his classroom in Pessac, Daniel passes on the lesson he has just learned about the respiratory system to a younger student, but misreads the information in his textbook. “There are two types of respiration,” he proclaims, “pulmonary and cutaneous. Cutaneous means with your arse” (because, for Daniel, cutaneous refers to ‘cu’, or ‘arse’).
  • After visiting a travelling circus and witnessing the daring exploits of a sword swallower, Daniel (deceptively) copies part of the magic act before a small group of friends, but does not receive the rapturous applause given to the professional.
  • On a train to his collège in Bordeaux, a boy enters Daniel’s carriage. Closing the door, and drawing the window shades, he advises Daniel: “Do as I do. Follow my lead.” Daniel remains motionless and the boy sits down. A girl enters, accompanied by another boy, and the couple sit down next to the first boy. The two boys proceed to kiss the girl in turn, feeling her breasts before one lays her down and climbs on top of her. “Yes, stay like that,” suggests the other boy. Daniel remains a wide-eyed observer, watching the entire time without participating.
  • At a matinee session of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951), a boy leans down and begins to kiss and fondle the anonymous girl in the seat directly in front of him. Daniel follows suit with a girl of his own, to great success.
  • In the garage where he is an apprentice, Daniel is interrogated by a friend of his boss (played by Maurice Pialat). Scoffing at the boy’s desire for further education, the man asks him if he retained anything of his schooling, asking him to recite the alphabet. Daniel does so, sounding out each letter, but is told that his way is incorrect, as his boss proceeds to recite it phonemically, as he has been taught.

In all of these scenes and in others besides, Daniel the behaviourist learns by repetition the causes and effects of different actions, which either result or do not result in the desired objectives, usually of adulation or reward (from girls, but also from his unsympathetic mother, played by Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven, and her Spanish lover, played by Dionys Mascalo). By the end of the film, his repetitions will cultivate in Daniel the possibility of difference, of a more individuated response to the circumstances of his existence.

The experience of watching My Little Loves is of watching Daniel’s progressive coming of age. But this is equally a film about Martin Loeb learning to act, a process that is itself constricted by the demands of fidelity to the script, and to observing the conduct of his more advanced colleagues, profiting from his interactions with older actors on set but offering a far greater level of professionalism on the project than many members of the team could apparently muster. In her behind-the-scenes account of the shoot, Loeb’s mother Cécile Odartchenko describes the excesses of alcohol, hashish, amphetamines and egos that facilitated the filmmaking process, as well as a number of libertine distractions that saw some of the cast and crew cavorting together off set.5

Collection Christophel © Pierre Zucca

In the midst of it all was Loeb, a boy whose paediatrician had cautioned against his participation in the film, but who was nevertheless able to perform capably well under what were, by all accounts, quite trying working conditions. Eustache’s behaviour in particular, as described by his assistant director Luc Béraud, had certainly affected the performances in The Mother and the Whore, in which bouts of drunkenness and anger had created a difficult climate on set, and “provoked a tension that exhausted the actors … and the crew, too”. 6 While he had been quite hard on the veritably seasoned Léaud in 1973, however, Eustache’s major requirement of the novice Loeb in My Little Loves was to perfect his scenes over the course of multiple takes.

Loeb “took his role very seriously”, and, as Odartchenko notes, “would have taught the crazy adults around him a lesson if they had been able to perceive the child’s reality”.7 At one point in the shoot, Loeb was able to offer something utterly unique, a one-off event that could not have been staged by a more practised actor. Although the scene in question represents a culmination of Daniel’s character arc (at least as regards his exchanges with the opposite sex), and was only made possible by the aggregation of his prior experiences, its enactment by Loeb adds another layer:

“Sometimes there’s a bad start to the shoot and Nestor [Almendros] curses, sometimes he has trouble finishing; Eustache wants more and more takes, and the children – Martin in particular – provide better takes than the adults. From a short distance I look at the two children, my boy and this little girl with beautiful black eyes and the little plaid dress, who are lying in the grass and kissing, maybe for the first time for each of them … They are so clumsy and serious at the same time! It’s important for them, it’s obvious. And you have to start over again and again!

Then we take the road to Narbonne at sunset, on foot, and the team is there, walking backwards ahead of the children who hold hands, and again Jean asks for take after take and the technicians say: ‘That’s enough!’ The children can’t take it anymore, but Jean does not want to stop, so they invoke their union!”8

Collection Christophel © Pierre Zucca

Odartchenko here recounts the shooting of the film’s final scene in the Occitanic countryside, which directly precedes Daniel’s return to his grandmother on vacation. It contains the most iconic and lasting images from the film, and crystallises a singular moment in which Daniel’s and Martin’s stars align: for both character and actor alike, here is the first kiss, an act that may result from the imitation of other kisses but which cannot be properly taught (for how might one learn to kiss another human without actually kissing?). Of course, the irony of the sequence here is that Loeb and the little girl, Marie-Paule Fernandez, may be acting out their first experiences of intimacy here, but it is a moment that is only produced by a multitude of takes. Further to this, the forced repetitions of the unrepeatable encounter are called to a halt here precisely because the two actors involved are – as children – only permitted to repeat a certain number of times, their wellbeing safeguarded by French labour regulations.

The tensions between repetition and difference are braided into this scene both in the case of the two characters involved and in the performances of the two young actors. But the presence of Fernandez also implicates Eustache’s own career trajectory in this mix; as if to redouble an earlier set of associations with Bresson, the girl’s uncanny resemblance to Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) supports the idea that the younger director is here working from the playbook of his elder. In this vein, Codruţa Morari has written of Eustache’s citations of Bresson’s films – from Mouchette (1967) but also from Pickpocket (1959) – as part of a more insidious “anxiety of influence” that pervades his work; the former director “resuscitates” elements from the latter’s oeuvre “in order to recode it”, deliberately heading off the anticipated comparisons between the two by modifying the outcome. As opposed to the predestined fate of the young girl in Bresson’s film, in My Little Loves, “the iconographic quotation transforms its original and redirects it, for her destiny will surely not be Mouchette’s”.9

In making The Mother and the Whore, Eustache had wanted to rid himself of all cinematic references, especially to the American films that had impressed themselves upon his earlier, shorter works.10 But here those references return with interest: to Hollywood in the film posters of Cecil B. DeMille and Budd Boetticher that adorn the Narbonne theatres; in the overt nods to Bresson and Jean Renoir (and to the provincial neighbour Marcel Pagnol, represented by a poster for his 1934 film Angèle); in Charles Trenet’s “Douce France”, sung over the opening credits and immediately calling to mind the same singer’s “Que reste-t-il de nos amours ?” in Truffaut’s 1968 film Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses). However Eustache might have tried to stave off such allusions in his first feature film, in this second long work he appears to have made a certain peace with their presence, working with rather than against them. “But after all,” as Fréderic Vitoux pointed out in his review of the film for Positif, “cultural reminiscences, at least those that are assumed and surpassed in the search for one’s own style, reflect as much the personality of the creator as this or that more ‘intimate’ thematic or biographical obsession”.11 Whether in a grand gesture of rewired Bressonian appropriation, or in the more modest (and more dissociative) detail of Daniel’s unexpected duplication of a line of dialogue, in My Little Loves Jean Eustache allows “stylistic imitation to surpass itself, to find forms beyond homage and fidelity”, such that in the final analysis, “imitation is no longer a repetition, but a resurrection”.12 L’imitation alors n’est plus une redite, mais une résurrection.” Brenez, op. cit., p. 92]

Endnotes:

  1. Nicole Brenez, “‘Approche inhabituelle des corps: Bresson avec Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel et Monte Hellman, Positif 430 (December 1996): pp. 88–92.
  2. Serge Toubiana, “Entretien avec Jean Eustache,” Cahiers du cinéma 284 (January 1978): p. 21.
  3. “… je n’ai jamais laisse les acteurs improviser, se dire eux-mêmes.” ibid., p. 26.
  4. Jean-Pierre pense à ce quil va dire, son discours est prémédité, son ton monocorde parce que relisant une pensée déjà inscrite. Stéphane Lévy-Klein, Entretien avec Jean Eustache (à propos de La maman et de la putain), Positif 157 (March 1974): pp. 50–53.
  5. Cécile Odartchenko, “Vies parallèles” (unpublished manuscript, 19 July 2018).
  6. … il provoque une crispation qui épuise les comédiens et … les techniciens aussi. Luc Béraud, Au travail avec Eustache: une équipe à quatre pattes, Positif 658 (December 2015): pp. 62–65.
  7. Mon petit garçon tellement émouvant dans le film, si fragile, cela se voit, prend son rôle très au sérieux, et donnerait une leçon aux adultes déjantés autour de lui s’ils étaient en mesure de percevoir la réalité des enfants.” Odartchenko, op. cit.
  8. Parfois le tournage a du mal à démarrer et Nestor peste, parfois il a du mal à finir, Eustache veut toujours plus et plus de prises, les enfants et Martin en particulier assurent beaucoup mieux que les adultes. Un peu à l’écart je regarde les deux enfants, le mien et cette petite fille aux beaux yeux noirs et petite robe à carreaux, qui sont allongés dans l’herbe et qui s’embrassent, peut-être pour chacun d’eux, c’est la première fois … Ils sont si maladroits et sérieux en même temps ! C’est important pour eux, on le voit bien. Et il faut recommencer encore et encore! Puis on prendra au soleil couchant la route, à pieds, vers Narbonne et l’équipe est là, avançant mais à reculons devant les enfants qui se tiennent par la main, et là encore Jean demande prise sur prise et les techniciens dissent ; ‘ça suffit !’ les enfants n’en peuvent plus, mais Jean ne veut pas cesser, alors ils invoquent leur syndicat!” ibid.
  9. Codruţa Morari, The Bressonians: French Cinema and the Culture of Authorship (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2017), p. 194.
  10. Lévy-Klein, “Entretien avec Jean Eustache,” pp. 50–53.
  11. Mais après tout, les réminiscences culturelles, du moins celles qui sont assumées et dépassées dans la quête de son propre style, traduisent tout autant la personnalité du créateur que telle ou telle obsession thématique ou biographique plus ‘intime’.” Fréderic Vitoux, “Quelques moments de grâce (Mes petites amoureuses),” Positif 166 (February 1975): pp. 62–63.
  12. “… l’imitation stylistique de se dépasser elle-même, de trouver des formes au-delà et de l’hommage et de la fidélité […