Jean Eustache, The Mother and the Whore, 1973, still from a black-and-white film in 35mm, 215 minutes. From left: Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Marie (Bernadette Lafont), and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun).

MUCH CAN BE LEARNED about how French filmmakers saw themselves by how they saw Jean-Pierre Léaud. In the young actor’s movies for his original mentor, Francois Truffaut, Léaud made a specialty of vulnerable, conflicted, but essentially charming lads who never quite become men. For Jean-Luc Godard, Léaud’s characters were more combative, like the hectoring Maoist in La Chinoise. And Léaud is an appropriately quixotic hero as he wanders through the metaphoric mazes of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1.

In Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore—the 1973 masterpiece that launches “Bad Company,” a traveling retrospective that arrives at Toronto’s Cinematheque Ontario on July 11—Léaud is best described as an outright prick. A Parisian pseudo-intellectual who flits between his long-suffering girlfriend (Bernadette Lafont) and a sexually liberated but mostly dour nurse (Françoise Lebrun), the lead character is as callow as he is loquacious, representing as he does his oh-so-promising generation’s turn toward solipsism after the ruptures of May ’68. He also serves as a self-directed j’accuse for his creator, as Eustache vents his own feelings of malaise and misogyny through Léaud with devastating results. Such is the film’s toxicity that Eustache’s ex-girlfriend, Catherine Garnier, who worked on the film crew and was his model for Lebrun’s character, killed herself after seeing a rough cut.

Eustache himself died by his own hand in 1981, thereby securing his reputation as one of French cinema’s most dolorous figures. That image is unfair, not least because of the vibrancy and vitality in the seemingly improvised (yet actually carefully calibrated) manner of his work. Despite his penchant for self-laceration, Eustache’s films are not without their tender side. The second of his three feature-length dramas, Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974), is a sharply observed coming-of-age story set largely in the countryside of southwestern France in the 1950s. Given the somewhat detached air he displays in the face of his pubescent tribulations, Daniel (played with great sensitivity by Martin Loeb) may very well grow up to be Léaud’s louses in The Mother and the Whore and Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, an acerbically comic 1966 short. But in the most delicate moments of Mes Petites Amoureuses, Eustache seems to hold out a little hope for the kid, inspiring us to do the same.

“Bad Company: The Films of Jean Eustache” runs July 11–17 at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.

Jason Anderson