The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain)

The Mother and the Whore

How nice you can be together.

Boy, did this one take some incentive to get through. Having read up a little on The Mother and the Whore beforehand (for my regular reasons, but also because I knew this would be a long film), it was safe to say there wasn’t a whole lot to look forward to with this three-and-a-half hour character study. Not only was it exceedingly long, but it was in black-and-white (somewhat rare for a 1970s film), and it seemed to be mostly about people talking with each other, which as I pointed out in my review of Chronicle of a Summer (among others) rarely makes for compelling viewing. Well, once again, I’m glad I did my research; everything I found out about the film was spot on, and it better prepared me to sit down and get through the whole thing, which as I mentioned took some effort.

The film deals with Alexandre, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, and his life in 1970s Paris, from his rejected attempt at reconciliation with his ex, to his finding himself a new lady, amid the objections of his live-in girlfriend, and the complicated love triangle that ensues; and all the while, Alexandre and the others wax on about their lives, their meanings, and whatever else that crosses their minds. For being 3 1/2 hours long, you’d think the film would either encompass a broad subject or era of time, or jam pack in as much material as possible, but The Mother and the Whore does neither; it’s really just about the various main and supporting characters talking to each other and their dynamics, and very little else. As for the script, it really hovered on the line of being self-indulgent, with lots of filmic references and needless philosophizing, but for me, it usually kept on the right side, most of the time. I wasn’t too keen on some of the dialogue, especially from Alexandre; it seemed to be too much like Leaud was merely listing off the dialogue instead of speaking like a regular person, and it was mostly the fault of the writing rather than him. To his credit, he does do a very good job with what he’s given, and the film would not have worked half as well with another actor in the role. What I especially wasn’t a fan of was the direction. It seemed every move, every action, undertaken by the actors had to be precisely where it was; they must do this, then say this line, then move to here, etc. The directing was far, far too evident, and the film only really seemed to work for me in the scenes where people sit and don’t do anything but talk, but then I run into my problems with the script, so there’s really no escaping the faults I perceived in this one. The editing was also very choppy, and it wasn’t streamed together at all; one can easily hear the audio cuts present whenever the film switches shots, which very easily kicks you out of being immersed in the film, which is the one thing I dislike most when watching a film.

I ended up in a bit of a bind with this one. I found myself trying to justify the film’s length, in the face of all my own reasoning that said otherwise, until I pretty much decided to stop and say what was really on my mind instead. I’ve read a number of reviews on this one stating that even though it is 90-100% people talking, by the end it had magically turned into a masterpiece in their eyes. With me, that didn’t happen; it was just people talking, and no amount of life-altering realizations or explorations of a certain character or archetype, to me, is worth 3 1/2 hours of people talking and nothing else. There’s a review by Pauline Kael that compares this film’s efforts to that of John Cassavetes to “put raw truth on the screen – including the boring and the trivial”, and to that I say; that doesn’t make the film any less boring or trivial. This, to me, is a great example of the bloated monstrosities that can result when people make films outside of studio or producer control; there’s just no stop-gap, no system to keep the filmmaker and his product in check so that it doesn’t end up a mostly self-indulgent whale of a film. I struggled to come up with things about the film that I liked or thought were well done, and aside from the acting I really couldn’t come up with any, so eventually I stopped struggling. I guess this is going to have to be one that I just disagree with the general consensus on, so all I can say is; do your own research, and decide for yourself whether to listen to the general masses that proclaim this a masterpiece, or listen to minority voices like me that just sat through hours of people talking and came out the other side with nothing to show for it.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Addendum: After writing this review, and looking at more reviews and messages proclaiming this a masterpiece, I re-evaluated what the film had to offer against the reasonings given by people as to why this is such a great film; reasonings like its gritty realism, in both the look of the film and the content, its unsympathetic characters, and the quality of the script, which I especially didn’t understand as I found the script really blocky and far too self-indulgent. Also, the climactic monologue, which I did enjoy as it deconstructed much of what I found unlikable about the film. After all of my re-evaluating, I can understand better why people claim this is a masterpiece, and I can empathize more with that viewpoint, but it just made me realize more clearly how much I don’t share such a viewpoint. In my eyes, the reasons that people give to call this a masterpiece are exactly the reasons why it is not to me, and I doubt I’ll be able to change my rationale when it comes to this. I just wanted to add this additional note, as I felt it pertinent, and it helped clear out a little of my own confusion about the film as well. Take from this what you will.

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3 thoughts on “The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain)

  1. Pity me – I saw this in the theater. It was the only option, given the film’s lack of availability elsewhere. Three and a half hours… by the end, I was practically eating the armrest in desperation to escape the vapid conversations.

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