Numéro zéro (FR, 1971, 35mm, b&w, 107′)
“You have to record things; whether they’re pretty or not, they’re important, they’re essential.”
– Jean Eustache
Luc Moullet once described him as a “blue collar dandy”. Legend has it that he aimlessly roamed the streets of Paris, regularly spending his nights in the Montparnasse bars, continually venturing into new romantic liaisons, but the self-conscious Rimbaudian artist was also an autodidact filmmaker whose work was steeped in an artisanal ethos and a penchant for sharp observation and ruthless provocation. This apparent paradox, which was at the heart of many of his films, never sat easily with the French film culture that came after the heyday of the Nouvelle Vague, which all too often succumbed to ideological blindness and bitter antagonism. That is how La Maman et la Putain, arguably his most autobiographical project, was dismissed as “deeply reactionary” on the pages of Cahiers de Cinéma, who put it on the same level as other “petit-bourgeois” movies such as Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. But Eustache’s character study of the lost children of post-’68 did not rest on ideological premises, but on his intimate understanding of the tremors of disquiet and anguish that ran through the streets of his city. Always the “ethnologist of his own reality”, as Serge Daney wrote in his obituary. Always the artisan who took on everything as it came, memorized everything as it presented itself. Always the non-conformist whose films followed their material right to where it led them, and never to where conventional guidelines were pointing them to. Always the renegade who resembled his times too much to be comfortable or contended. A constant struggle he eventually ended up losing. The film at show here, which has remained unseen for so long, is what he considered to be his “numéro zero”, his tabula rasa with everything that had come before. A film that is unsure of itself, a manifesto without a program, made without any intent or pretense, only answering to a single desire: the desire for cinema.
“There are many reasons why one makes a film. However, as we proceed with the preparation (calling the technicians together, buying the film, hiring the lighting equipment, deciding the day and time to begin shooting), the actual filming (action, cut), the finishing process (synchronizing the images and the sound, editing, post-synchronizing), ninety nine percent of the time we forget what urged us to make the film in the first place. Sometimes we remember once we emerge from the darkness of the editing room and the film laboratories. Without being able to justify the existence of Odette Robert, I can speak of why I made Numéro Zéro, of which Odette Robert is but a fragment. I don’t know whether Numéro Zéro was a film. To say that I was urged to shoot it by the torment I was enduring at the time is not very revealing. I remember walking through Paris, from Montparnasse to the 17th arrondissement, thinking whilst I walked as if I were walking back through time. When I arrived back home, my grandmother spoke to me for quite a long time, and I had the impression that she was telling me extremely important things. When I said to her, “Listen, we should record this”, she said to me, “But really, these aren’t nice things”. “It doesn’t matter,” I replied, “it’s important to record these things, nice or not, they’re important, they’re essential”.
I found a bit of money to buy some black and white 16mm film, hired two cameras, and asked Théaudière to be the cameraman and Jean-Pierre Ruh to do the sound. The duration was as long as the reel of film, with the two cameras working alternately, in relays, without ever cutting. The picture was therefore the story of the film, from beginning to end. At the same time, as I was working as a filmmaker at the time, this was a film by a professional filmmaker, as well as being a family film, like an amateur 8mm film shot on the beach. The two were therefore not compatible. I then asked director Adolfo Arrietta to take a few street shots, and film my grandmother and my son doing their shopping in the nearby street. I wanted this to be the beginning of the film, with no sound or anything, completely separate from the rest, which has sound and where the image remains static.
I had the impression it was a manifesto, but of what, I didn’t know. Perhaps of the fact that, at the time, I couldn’t make films. After this, some well-meaning people introduced me to someone in television who viewed my work. But Numéro Zéro was not suitable for the television of the time, 1971.
To answer the question as to whether Numéro Zéro was a film, I still can’t tell you. I maintained that it was, without actually being very sure of myself.
It is about a journey through time by an old woman, moving between her great grandparents and her great grandchildren, during which we see six generations of
the history of France, told through the eyes of Odette Robert, my grandmother. In the original Numéro Zéro, I didn’t cut anything. As to what I later called Odette
Robert, fragments of the original film, I don’t know whether this has become a film in the meantime. Numéro Zéro was an anomaly, limited by the length of the reel of film. To split it in fragments meant deciding what to edit, as editing implies a choice. I had to decide upon the editing and make a choice. However, I don’t think that the original anomaly has disappeared though. I just cut out a few people, as I had to reduce the length by half. I strongly doubted that it was a film at the time, in February 71, as I had never seen anything like it before. Since then, I have discovered things that resemble it a little, namely Godard’s video programmes, which, a few years down the line, were the only things you could compare it to. Of course, I had no prior intention when making this film, I was simply eaten up with suffering, and this film was a response to that suffering.”
– Jean Eustache
“It happened in 2001. It was a beautiful winter afternoon. At a bistrot Jean-Marie turns to me: ‘There’s this film by Jean Eustache… I was one of the eight chosen schmucks that he invited to the screening… He was always so unsure – he kept telling us how he thought the film was a useless piece of shit… And when the lights came on, we were all stunned! I told him it was one of the greatest films about the history of France, as great as Renoir’s La Marseillaise. Perhaps the only film ever that you can call an important piece of sociology, without trashing the words film and sociology. I think it’s a film for you.’ Well, that did it. Of course, I had always admired and loved Eustache’s films, and out of the blue comes this mysterious Numéro Zéro: I had to find it! One or two months later, a miracle in Paris: Eustache’s son Boris on the phone, ‘Yes, I think there’s a working print of Numéro Zéro under my bed.’ I called my friend João Bénard da Costa, the late great director of the Portuguese Cinémathéque: “Bring it over, ASAP!” So, the Lab at Film Archives in Lisbon proceeded to restore this magnificent 35mm negative and one day we all sat in the theatre to watch it… and it was my kind of movie all right.”
– Pedro Costa
In the context of the research project “Figures of Dissent (Cinema of Politics, Politics of Cinema)”
KASK / School of Arts