This film history landmark was directed by Jean Eustache, who makes Terrence Malick look like Taksahi Miike (eerie... both with TM initials) in the sparseness of his output. It is pegged as the last masterpiece of the French New Wave, as well as the death of that movement. Of course, calling it a New Wave film brings up questions about its formal approach- Does it use a lot of jump cuts and purposely jerky shot/scene transitions? Does it feature handheld camera work and on-location shooting? Does it have a Marxist subtext? Does it celebrate or condemn classical Hollywood cinema? After all, "The 400 Blows" and "Weekend", both considered Nouvelle Vague classics, are about as similar as the Beatles and Schoenberg. That is to say, "The Mother and the Whore" could just as likely be a traditional narrative film as it could be a Godard-type film essay.
Actually, it feels most similar to something like "My Night at Maud's", which came out only 4 years before. You could say that it's a three and a half hour Rohmer film. Like "Jules and Jim", it features an optimistic menage-a-trois that gradually becomes too much of a good thing. It also shares similarities with the American underground films that were made in the wake of the European new wave, especially the free-wheeling looseness of "Faces" and the self-conscious talkiness of "David Holzman's Diary" and "Who's That Knocking At My Door".
Like "Kill Bill" or "Boogie Nights", however, "The Mother and the Whore" would not really be worth its marathon running time if it were only the sum of its influences. Instead, it uses those formal and narrative ideas to create a new set of characters and concerns. New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud plays the over-cultured and often pretentious protagonist, who bounces between the girlfriend he lives with and a nurse he meets at a cafe. Most of the narrative involves ramblings between the characters about sex, love, money, feminism, and the things that were on people's minds at the turn of the 70s. Unlike some Godard films, the dialogue is not disembodied from the characters, but tells us a lot about them, the way it does in a film by Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer. The three lovers live their "liberated" lives self-consciously, seeming to try very hard to do what young people do. There is a wonderful, lengthy scene in the last stretch of the film where the nurse, after a drunken night between the three of them, gives a morning-after monologue about what she really wants and what free love really means to her. It's a devastatingly emotive climax to a film that seems to hide its heart for the first three hours; in fact it is the characters who refuse to be vulnerable and who pretend that nothing affects them. In contrast with the mournful, contemplative ending of "Jules and Jim", "The Mother and the Whore" ends with a fragment, a piece of organic domestica capped off with a comma rather than a period. It's one of those great fragment endings like "Faces", "Cure", or "A History of Violence" that leaves the audience with questions and doubts, and yet feels satisfying. Like life, right?