(France - 1967)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Jean Vimenet, Marie Cardinal, Paul Hebert
Genre: Drama
Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson from Georges Bernanos book Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette
Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet
Composer: Jean Wiener
Runtime: 90 minutes

Robert Bresson progressively pared his stories down to the bare minimum, eliminating the voice over narration of his 1950’s classics A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, which purposely didn’t really tell us any more than we could already see anyway. Probably nowhere in his amazing body of work lies a film where what isn’t included is more important than in Mouchette. Its closest cousin is his previous film Au Hassard Balthazar, but that takes place over the lifetime of the donkey. It starts out good, but goes very sour when he’s turned into a beast of burden and sold from one miserable excuse for a human being to another before his accidental demise. Mouchette is the culmination of 14-years of suffering with no refuge. The titled character (Nadine Nortier) should have a lot left to experience; she’s barely even reached the point where her hormones are raging. Her end is so much more pronounced than Balthazar’s not only because she somewhat spontaneously decides to seize control in a whimsical manner that’s the only way she can figure to, but because we see less than one day of her life of being a target whose fate is in the hands of callous villagers.

Even though Mouchette is raped then loses her sick mother, either of which have been known to cause more than severe traumatization, part of us rebels against her suicide solution. We feel Bresson hasn’t earned the finish: Mouchette shouldn’t give up ever, certainly not yet. While that may well be true, it’s largely due to what we’ve been conditioned to as well as our own vanity. We’ve been given a series of generally minor abuses, but Bresson’s cinema is one of condensation and linkage. He gives us all the pieces of the puzzle, but he asks us to put them together.

Mouchette’s life is one of abject pain brought on by being entirely alone. Bresson refuses to state explanations for his star having no one and nothing, for not being able to trust even one human being. But we can certainly infer them from the bits we pick up here and there, which makes for a far more interesting viewing experience. I’d much rather figure out the meaning of a scene 5, 10, 50 minutes later, than be told things like Mouchette’s father is a bootlegger who is still poor. In an illegal business you’re only respected if you are able to get away with flaunting your money, so that combined with being a useless rotten alcoholic doesn’t put him on the top of everyone’s Christmas list.

Bresson understands and understates little details so well they can go unnoticed. His depiction of the effects of solitude is as good as any I’ve seen. I can’t think of another film where it subtly took the main character a while to warm up and be able to respond “normally”, to simply have a real dialogue. People who aren’t open to Bresson complain the film has “no dialogue”, but that’s entirely the point. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Mouchette has absolutely no one to converse with. She talks sometimes, but mostly gives brief programmed responses to someone else’s orders or complaints.

Arsene (Jean-Claude Gilbert) is the only person who recognizes Mouchette as a fellow human being. He’s different because he’s a poor poacher, and thus disrespected himself. In a drunken stupor, he thinks he’s killed his rival, the gamekeeper Mathieu (Jean Vimenet). He decides to use Mouchette for an alibi because he stumbles across her in the vicinity.

Mouchette is often viewed as some kind of angel, but I think she’s mainly a product of a corrupt society, the kind of place where everyone goes to the bar before church and that’s where the education takes place. She may be the only one who seems to strive for love, even if in her naive ways, but she’s also a horrible reactionary who’ll try to make sure you know she hates you for not reciprocating.

Hardly as silly as she often looks, and not a moralist, Mouchette realizes if she goes along with Arsene they’ll have something of a pact. One friend means the world to you when you have none. The reason, the cost, that it’s really more of a sinister bond, all that stuff can easily be overlooked when you are as desperate as she is. Arsene quickly turns out to be something she’s used to, an abusive drunk like her father, but ultimately she still doesn’t care. Even after he rapes her she’s willing to call him her lover because he was the first to see her as a woman.

Hope is about all Mouchette has had to cling to. It’s often misplaced and confused, but she’s a kid who hasn’t exactly had anyone to guide her. Mouchette mixes love and respect with a willingness to use her, but then again she’s so low even being used seems like a huge step up. At least it involves human contact and allows her to believe she’s doing something good for others, even if they don’t actually appreciate it or her. What she believes is what matters to her.

When her mother took ill, Mouchette began taking over her tasks. She doesn’t mind the work because she likes being able to do something for somebody, but she thinks she’ll gain standing from it. Her perpetually absent family members probably don’t even respect her mother, but as anyone is a gain for Mouchette, so is anything.

This is a coming of age film, though not in the traditional sense of rites of passage. It’s not so much about having her first experiences with sex and death; they are simply the events that cause her to reflect inward. The newly introspective Mouchette realizes she won’t gain her family with her mother’s passing; they’ll never lover her. She’s also not going to gain a man because Arsene has just been railroaded, which finishes them since her word can’t help him. The real traumatic experience is the revelation that this lonely old lady who has nothing but her cats is going to be her one of these days.

By eliminating the aspects that ground or pander to the viewer, that make movies little more than staged theatre, Bresson tells stories that are truly cinematic. Bresson’s films rely on three aspects - the manner in which his “models” are framed, the editing of the footage, and the amplified natural sound effects - and scrap just about all the others. No one could even attempt to do his stories in any other medium; they would be threadbare and incomprehensible.

Bresson’s frames seem incredibly detailed because they are so specific. There’s less in the background than almost any other filmmaker - nothing there to distract the viewer - so what is there is that much more pronounced. He edits fairly often, but always to precise shots that are not traditionally set up (no establishing shots). These often require total interpretation because we see a tight shot of a body part, which means nothing in and of itself, but these shots are all linked so their meaning comes in the overall context of the series, and the film as a whole.

One of his most brilliant scenes comes right after the opening credits. A partridge finds itself stuck in the rivalry between Mathieu and Arsense. We don’t know who the men are yet because he’s eliminated the set up. Bresson cuts between Mathieu’s face focusing on the eye since he’s spying on Arsene, Arsene’s lower body focusing on the hand since he’s setting the trap, the trap itself once it’s set, a sort of path that’s currently vacant but leads to the trap, and the hapless bird. Arsene disappears after he’s completed his task, so when we see the legs of a man cautiously approaching the tangled partridge we aren’t positive which one it is, though we assume it’s Mathieu since there was a cut to him leaving his hiding spot. We know for sure when he frees the bird, but to depict the kind of cat and mouse game these two always play the scene doesn’t end there. We see a shot of Arsene’s face focusing on his eye, which obviously relates to the shots we’d recently seen of Mathieu, showing their rivalry consists of playing the same games. Later Bresson follows up duplicating his shots of each coming into the bar and making a play for the same barmaid (Marine Trichet). This partridge scene goes on almost 4 minutes before its primary purpose is revealed when Mathieu simply walks past Mouchette, who is on her way to school. It’s our introduction to her, but more importantly a metaphor, Bresson’s first way of linking her to helpless prey. Though the association is subliminal, we notice it because of the way the segment was edited, and it begins to make sense to us with a certain kind of highly varied repetition.

The scene is far more dramatic in its condensed form. We still get the complete story, it just has less of the positioning we are used to, which adds an element of intrigue and even surprise as the decrease in continuity makes us less sure what we’ll see. The partridge scene is probably more toward what Sam Peckinpah would explore than typical Bresson. Peckinpah was more interested in the dynamics of editing, and used the tool to make the most intriguing sequence he could put together out of the countless hours of film he shot. Peckinpah looked to expand the story, and thus his montage was a way to fit more varied aspects into the film without it being 10 hours long. Bresson knows what he wants a lot more specifically - he has to since he doesn’t shoot coverage - economy. Still, it seems Bresson could have influenced the way Peckinpah put certain scenes together, shooting with a specific focus and combined multiple perspectives. The link between Mouchette and Straw Dogs seems the most plausible when you look at the way Peckinpah does the hunting scene, even the idea of a rape that isn’t nearly as unwelcome as it should be due to the desperation of the woman is similar.

Bresson’s interest in filming humans lay in seeing how they’d react to adversity. As he states in Theodor Kotulla’s useful documentary Au Hassard Bresson that’s included on the Criterion Collection DVD, he wanted to discover “unlimited surprises, but within a limited context.” A professional actor probably wouldn’t behave naturally; the truth would be lost because they’d act the way they felt a person would in that situation. Though Guilbert is actually a carry over from Au Hassard Balthazar, Bresson didn’t reuse actors because people tend to react to adversity in the same basic ways, so unpredictability would be lost. Thus Bresson cast different non-professionals, the authenticity and originality of their performance “born from the novelty of an unfamiliar character set loose in an unfamiliar context.”

Bresson particularly liked working with younger actresses. They were more unpredictable due to having less time to adopt the standard behaviors. Nadine Nortier’s work is certainly an example of acting at it’s finest, yet she never acted again. What’s so special about her, perhaps precisely that nothing is. She looks like a real girl. She acts like a real girl who isn’t posing or playing for the camera since Bresson is particular about things like the way her chin is tilted and eyes are looking. Her performance as the troubled pariah is so moving simply because we believe her. Who wouldn’t feel for a helpless girl who is treated so awfully by everyone? Bresson particularly hated the usual children’s performance “it’s all either sweetness or silliness”, so he gives her scenes that elicit varying reactions and give us a more complete portrait of her. The film is heartfelt but not sentimental. Mouchette doesn’t deserve what she’s gotten, but she isn’t a nice person either and does bring some of it on herself.

Bresson realizes you may reject his conclusion; it’s a chance he has to take to try to enact a change. He’s trying to tear down the foundation, and that can only be done by rejecting the accepted. He’s not going to make you happy by having a pretty boy show up to love Mouchette forever just because everyone else does. And he’s not going to spend his entire movie trying to convince you to accept his finish because to do that would be engaging in the opposite (less popular) form of the accepted (suicide story). When you constantly stroke the audience’s sensibility you add to the myths, which are created and fueled through repetition. I don’t think Bresson is suggesting we all commit suicide to be different or attain grace, but rather that we should strive to make the world worthy of us. One way to do that is to live less selfishly and reach out to a Mouchette.




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *