Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Mouchette has been described as Robert Bresson's most endearing picture. It's also been called a 'human' replay of his previous film au hasard, Balthazar in that young Mouchette is similarly battered by a cold and cruel world. In his trailer for the film, Jean-Luc Godard says that Mouchette is about 'Christian sadism,' making it seem as if Robert Bresson's core motivation was political. In any case, this tale of an unhappy childhood is no longer as shocking as it might have seemed in 1967; the ensuing decades have seen plenty of equally depressing movies about blighted, hopeless young lives.
Mousy and unkempt, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is the neglected and abused daughter of a smuggler who beats her (Paul Hebert). Mouchette's mother (Maria Cardinal) is bedridden and dying of cancer, leaving behind a newborn baby. Ostracized by the girls at school and harassed by the local boys, Mouchette has adopted a bitter and resentful outlook at life. She is raped by the local poacher Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert) but happily volunteers to provide him an alibi for his attack on the gamekeeper Mathieu (Jean Vimenet). When other adults show concern or attempt to act charitably, Mouchette responds with insults -- she even grinds mud into the carpet of a woman concerned for Mouchette's dying mother.
About a third of the way into Mouchette, the dour young girl is staring at the bumper cars at a local fair. A passing woman slips a coin into her hand. For two minutes Mouchette happily bounces around behind the wheel, laughing when the other cars bang into hers. Those few moments seem to be the highlight of Mouchette's miserable life.
Valued by no one, bullied and abused by her family, Mouchette is shut off behind a sullen expression. When she refuses to hit the correct note in choir practice, the teacher drags her across the classroom by her neck. Mouchette can't really communicate with her mother. Her father takes her money or hits her, but never really talks to her. After the bumper car ride, Mouchette walks up to a boy who caught her eye. Her father catches this, slaps her and shoves her on her way.
The burro in au hasard, Balthazar is by definition an innocent creature of God, but Bresson's abused Mouchette is not a standard 'deserving' waif. She's nowhere near as endearing as Marie, the girl who loves Balthazar and suffers similar degradations. Mouchette returns the silent contempt of her schoolgirl peers by hiding in a ditch and throwing mud at them. She mutters vicious remarks at adults. She sides with the poacher Arsène simply because he's an outlaw, and doesn't mind that he's a drunkard and beset by epileptic seizures. Outcast and scourged, Mouchette is looking for hateful things to do. The poacher is the only other fully developed character. His dispute with the gamekeeper is really a competition for a local woman, a rather depressing barmaid.
Mouchette has a religious context but is not as openly symbolic as au hasard, Balthazar. Mouchette's father shoves her through the church doors right into the cistern. The film stays particularized on the miserable experience of one unlucky and unloved girl, and some members of her community, without making a larger social statement. We get none of the social criticism of Luis Buñuel (Las Hurdes) or the icy misanthropy of Georges Clouzot (Le corbeau). The dull despair of reality is enough for Bresson; the world is limited to the experience of our misguided and abandoned heroine. Bresson records the unreachable mystery of rebellion in Mouchette's eyes. We empathize with the girl and despair that her brutal life is the one lived by a sizeable segment of humanity.
What Mouchette does offer is a foretaste of the future of childhood. Mouchette is neglected by a rural family that sees her as little more than a workhorse and a target for personal frustration. Ten and fifteen years later, the equally neglected children of relatively affluent suburbs would develop the same feelings of belligerent disaffection and unfocused rebellion, as represented in films like Over the Edge, where unhappy latch-key kids rebel and burn their own school. Emotional rejection has the same effect on a child, no matter what the social background.
Rather unsubtly, Bresson has Mouchette's choirmates sing a song that begins with the words, "No Hope, No Hope." We're also shown hunters shooting rabbits and the poacher snaring birds, schematic sequences that complement Mouchette's suffering and entrapment. Bresson's ending is both chilling and mysterious-- a perfunctory rude finish. Mouchette is carrying an armload of linen shrouds given by a neighbor for a funeral. She rolls on the ground with one of the shrouds, making us think that she wants to 'defile' their purity in the same way she purposely tracks mud into church. But the fact that she rolls with the cloth suggests that she's also caught up with the idea of death. Mouchette's last personal family connection has ended in death, and her ritual-like play seems an aimless way of addressing her mother's fate and her overriding rejection of a hated life.
From this point on Bresson's films became even colder, until his last picture, L'argent, a remote observation of human evil at work, A minor act of dishonesty sets in motion a deplorable chain of events that lead to a series of bloody serial killings. Unlike his early Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson's characters no longer believe that a search for spiritual harmony is even possible.
Criterion's DVD of Mouchette presents Bresson's 1967 film in a flawless enhanced B&W transfer. The pricey disc licenses two complete French television shows from the 1960s with extended interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Bresson at work on this particular film. The director explains that he's working from Georges Bernanos' existing story to save time, and he tries to express his theory of directing by setting actors in real situations and seeing what happens. Two of Bresson's non-pro players give dull testimony about working on the show. Nadine Nortier offers only monosyllabic answers and Jean-Claude Guilbert simply says that he likes the pay but that acting for Bresson is 'idiot' work, unlike his normal job as a mason.
Tony Rayns provides an insightful commentary that sums up the overwhelming critical reverence for this title, with a special emphasis on Bresson's technique. and discusses The capping touch is the original theatrical trailer, which Jean-Luc Godard once disowned, but finally admitted was his work. Godard's trailers are always captivating and clever, and this one presents Mouchette as a provocative mystery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Commentary by Rony Rayns; two French TV shows: Au Hasard Bresson and Travelling; text essay by Robert Polito, original trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 28, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson