“My Little Loves” lovingly and candidly renders teenage angst

Jean Eustache’s 1974 coming-of-age drama screens in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on July 21.
Four teenage boys sit on a sparsely grassy hill, all staring intently to the right of the frame. Daniel, the youngest and smallest among them, wears a white button shirt with long sleeves.
Daniel (Martin Loeb), second from the right, waits for a ferry with his friends so that they can cross the river and attend a dance at St. Mary’s, an all-girls school.

Jean Eustache’s 1974 coming-of-age drama screens in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on July 21.

To return to the memories of one’s childhood, and to probe the vividest of them for answers and explanations, is an innate urge. Judging by the abundance of art that deals in adolescence, it seems that, as cultural consumers, we also crave creative renderings of that quest to help us sort things out on an intuitive level. We leave it to the dancer, the writer, the painter, to ask on our adult behalf, “Why did I end up like this?” 

Writer-Director Jean Eustache navigates that question with a strict adherence to the traditions birthed by his fellow Frenchmen in Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974), which translates literally to My Little Loves. UW Cinematheque, screening the film at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 21, dubs it “Eustache’s cinematic memoir.” 

It is the story of a young boy, Daniel (Martin Loeb), who’s taken from his grandmother’s (Jacqueline Dufranne) care to live in the city with his mother (Ingrid Caven) and her Spanish lover (Dionys Mascolo). Daniel is forced to forgo his formal education to take lessons in becoming a man from the menagerie of characters haunting boulevards and bars. 

In faithfulness to reality, Daniel’s enlightenment in matters of sexuality and adulthood is depicted in sparsely populated vignettes, which are connected by a thin thread of narrative. Coupled with Néstor Almendros’ airy cinematography, this rendering mimics our literal experiences of the act of reminiscing and how the echoes of our pasts really take shape. Humans don’t have the ability to reproduce the minutest of details of even a single moment of lives, but we can and do easily recall sensations, bits and pieces of whispers shared with our first loves, or the way the sunlight looked on a particular afternoon in our childhood home. 

Although the dialogue would feel unexpectedly stiff and unsentimental on its own, it instead feels unexpectedly authentic, satisfyingly Proustian, in Eustache’s framing. We glimpse at that when Daniel is told that he can no longer go to middle school or he’s experiencing his first romantic rendezvous with a girl hidden away among the tall grasses of a field in the signature French countryside.

Eustache and his contemporaries of the French New Wave, like François Truffaut, stray from artistic ancestor Marcel Proust in their blunt depiction of teenage angst. In lieu of the flowing, flowery language filled with innuendos and emotional justifications that Proust offers in his series of early twentieth-century novels, In Search Of Lost Time, Eustache comes right out and says it in My Little Loves: boys want to touch girls’ “cabooses.” If we want to honestly decipher our adulthood, Eustache asks, what’s the use in pretending we were any nobler than that in childhood?

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