Friday, February 17, 2012


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.


Jon said...

"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."

Great analysis Samuel of one of Bresson's best films and you're right one of the most unflinchingly sad film I can think of. However, I'm not so sure she refuses to listen to the message. I think that's what her suicide at the end reflects. She got the message and had had enough. I actually find a bit of a cathartic moment at the end as her suffering is over. Whether this is intended or my own reading, I'm not sure. It's somewhat a relief at the end, even though I know that's a terrible way of viewing such a tragic event.

Samuel Wilson said...

Jon, I think your reading is perfectly valid; many people watching this might well conclude that there's no point to living her life. I'm probably presuming, given Bresson's reputation, that her failure to hit the water on her first and second tries is some kind of reprieve, just as her time on the bumper cars was meant as a hint of a better life, but that instead of seeing those attempts as a verdict of fate (i.e. "keep living!") Mouchette is determined to keep going until she gets the result she wants -- even if going into the water isn't necessarily that result.

Peter Lenihan said...

Bresson's attitude towards suicide was, like everything else about him, pretty complex, and to assume he had anything resembling a traditional Christian attitude towards it is a mistake, I think. Here's a quote from an interview in 1970:

Bresson: Yes, but I confess that more and more suicide loses its sinfulness to me. Killing oneself can be courageous; not killing oneself, because you wish to lose nothing, even the worst that life has to offer, can also be courageous. Since I live near the Seine, I have seen many people jump into the river in front of my windows. It's remarkable that more don't do it. There are so many reasons for suicide, good and bad. I believe that the church has become less rigorous against it. Sometimes it is inevitable, and not always because of madness. To be aware of a certain emptiness can make life impossible.

Full interview here:

I would argue that emptiness is in some sense the subject of Mouchette, as well as almost all his later films (certainly A Gentle Woman, Lancelot du Lac, The Devil Probably & L'argent). No coincidence, then, that all of them revolve around either murder or suicide (often both).

Sam Juliano said...

This is one of your great pieces Samuel, and one that for me is most timely, with a just completed Bresson Festival where I appeared for this very film barely a month ago. Bernanos of course was a devout Catholic and this is the second film that Bresson adapted from his work after DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. I appreciate the comparisons to BALTHAZAR and would add that of all Bresson's films MOUCHETTE is surely the most accessible, perhaps the easiest to respond to. One could envision people going with great interest to a film they knew was about Joan of Arc or a donkey, or a country priest, and getting an unplesant shock at the kind of film Bresson's turned out to be. Conversely those who might be interested and able to handle the tragic denouement of MOUCHETTE, where aq friendless 14 year-old girl drowns herself, can make the proper connections to other works, while holding this up as an example of the ultimate tragedy. Amazingly, Bresson makes this "unesoteric" without at all modifying his distinctive elliptical style and tells a wrenchingly moving story of an oppressed child in a hostile world not only without being sentimental but without leaving any opening at all for the sentimental reponse.

The stark and austere physical look of the film by black and white wizrd Ghislain Cloquet is one the cinema's most ravishing tapestries.

Samuel Wilson said...

Peter: Thanks for the clarification and the quote from Bresson -- and I agree that the later Bressons I've seen, Lancelot and L'Argent, are pretty dark. Of course, the question of whether Mouchette should kill herself and whether she's damning herself for it are two different things, and here I wonder whether there's a different emphasis, or even a different ending, in the Bernanos novel. As an atheist I obviously don't think the character is damned, but I'm trying to consider the film in terms of authorship and the intended audience.

Sam, I definitely agree on Mouchette's accessibility -- I'd put it on a level with Pickpocket among Bresson's films on that score. But the only one of his films that I've really found alienating as a matter of style is Lancelot, which just happened to be the first Bresson I ever saw. Maybe the rest come easy after that.

mark s. said...

I think Anne Wiazemsky's Marie is a suicide, too, though I've often seen her disappearance interpreted as a descent into prostitution. Because of Bresson's visual and thematic doubling technique in 'Balthazar', however, it seems to me that Marie and the donkey both must die.
How do you interpret Marie's disappearance?
Oh, great essay on yet another Bresson masterpiece.

mark s. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.