A character begins a film in abject poverty, picked on by just about everyone and resentful in return. What are your standard movie options? She could somehow overcome her background and upbringing and earn a respectable place in the world, and even someone's love. Or she could take her pain out on society by becoming a killer or some other sort of criminal. Or you could be the title character of Robert Bresson's movie, which has a heavier agenda. Adapting a novel by Georges Bernanos, Bresson produced a forbidding film, denying his protagonist either redemption or transgressive catharsis. He does just enough, suggesting just enough possibility for escape, to make the outcome especially tragic. Mouchette is a lament for wasted potential, but it doesn't take its victim off the hook. Because you can't see her entirely as a victim, the consequences are all the more terrible.
The movie opens with the suggestion that things could have gone better. We first see a woman we'll recognize later as Mouchette's mother contemplating an apparent diagnosis of breast cancer and pondering what'll become of her family without her. She's still hanging on as Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) enters her teens as the family slavey and the awkward kid in school. The father treats her like dirt, and the girl seems to have an affinity for dirt. Her after-school hobby is to lurk across the road as the other girls come out so she can throw mud at them. Later, we see consciously track mud into a church. Later still, she'll deliberately grind her muddy soles into an old woman's carpet as the lady tries to be kind to her. She seethes with resentment; all she'd need would be a deformity to turn into the sort of embittered master criminal Lon Chaney Sr. specialized in, the kind dedicated to vengeance against the world for their misfortunes. But we have no sense of Mouchette's imagination, or any inkling that she has an inner life at all.
A day at the fair, after her shift as a part-time bartender, hints at a better life. Through an act of grace, Mouchette is given a ticket for the bumper cars. You see her gain confidence as she learns to steer and take the initiative. When one boy bumps into her repeatedly, she starts bumping back in what looks increasingly like a form of flirting. For a moment she seems like an ordinary teenager. The scene can certainly be interpreted symbolically, with the bumper cars as some sort of metaphor for life, but by Bresson's austere standard it's also an exhilirating bit of filmmaking. And for Mouchette it's downhill from there, starting almost instantly when her father steps in as she tries to continue flirting, slaps her face and shoves her away from the boy.
Mouchette's adventures, such as they've been, have been intercut with a subplot dealing with two hunters' rivalry over a bar girl. The storylines connect when she spends a rainy night in the woods and encounters one of the hunters, Arsene, who has just gotten into a fight with his rival. After Arsene leaves her in a rustic shelter, she hears gunshots. Arsene returns, fearful that he's killed the rival, and asks Mouchette to help him sustain an alibi. Taking her to his home, Arsene suddenly has an epileptic fit. A look of happiness flickers across her face as she tries to comfort him, reminding us that her moribund mother is probably the only person she actually loves. Arsene seems a changed man when he revives. When Mouchette tells him that she'd rather die than betray him, he takes that as a green light to rape her.
The next day, Mouchette learns that the rival hunter had not died -- is actually alive and quite well -- but her own mother finally expires. People's sympathy for her is undercut by their revulsion as they intuit what happened to her the night before. She seems to resent every charitable gesture -- the old woman whose carpet she soils had just given her a shroud for her mother. Finally, feeling rebuffed at every turn, but not really desiring comfort either, Mouchette claims the shroud for herself. She wraps herself in it and rolls herself down a hill. Seemingly disappointed at coming through unhurt, she does it again, this time stopping just short of the water's edge. Still unsatisfied, she keeps on trying....
Bresson is often described as a spiritual filmmaker, while novelist Bernanos was a devout Catholic. Their design was apparently to show us the making of a lost soul, if not to daunt us with how early a soul could be lost. Mouchette starts the film close to the brink as a miserable, resentful creature, and circumstances seem to leave her no way out of a miserable existence. But if her wretched family and rural society are to blame for bringing her to the precipice, what happens at the precipice is all her own responsibility. Whether she's consciously trying to kill herself or simply indulging in a reckless thrill with indifference to her own survival, you get the sense from the film that she's being sent a message but refuses to listen. One way or the other, she is choosing death. It may be the only form of rebellion she's capable of, but it's one of the bleakest finales in cinema. Mouchette is often compared with Bresson's previous film, Au Hasard Balthasar, in which an oft-mistreated donkey serves as a model of Christian endurance and resignation. Is Mouchette damned by comparison? It largely depends on your worldview, but a secular humanist could still say the girl is wrong to court death. The subject is uncomfortable to think about because we're used to the improbable escape, the lucky break, or the violent catharsis inflicted on others. Bresson's claim to greatness, whether you accept it here or not, is to refuse us those options. As a craftsman, his greatness here consists of the clarity of the narrative and the wonders he works with the amateur adolescent actress Nortier in her one and only film appearance. She can be a sullen mask or unguardedly natural or exactly as expressive as the director requires. She wins your sympathy or at least keeps your interest riveted. You could argue that the film wouldn't be a classic without her, but her casting really only confirms Bresson's casting instincts and his wisdom, in this case, in avoiding established film personalities. He made Mouchette one of the feel-bad movies of all time, and whether you end up liking the film in any sense or not, you've got to respect that kind of achievement.