Like a trap set for an innocent filmgoer, Judge Bill Gibron found Robert Bresson's brutal, bleak look at one young girl's terrible life a haunting, harrowing masterwork.
Sometimes, the burden placed on us by life is not as overwhelming as we imagine it. Instead of one giant cloud of despair and struggle, existence simply tosses tiny roadblocks in our path, hoping to trip us up as we move ever forward towards mortality. Don't be mistaken, however. All these minor miseries—lack of essentials, missing internal and external happiness, pressures, and pain from within and without—do add up, creating their own shroud of sorrow from which we can barely breathe. But we carry these catastrophes with unlikely ease. How we choose to deal with such disasters is part of our makeup as individuals. At first, it may look like little Mouchette is the most put-upon child in the history of French cinema. Unloved, unwanted, and unaware of the way in which the world works, this feral female, unformed and uninitiated, has no real connection to the comforts offered within society. Her family is falling apart and her classmates detest her dirty, dour appearance. The locals look at her with unbridled disgust, creating rumors and innuendos about her without a single shred of viable proof. Indeed, what we learn from Robert Bresson's heartbreakingly bleak morality play is that reaction to one's lot is almost as important as the daily dice being thrown. In this case, Mouchette just may be her own worst enemy.
Facts of the Case
Her mother is dying. Her father and brother are bootleggers. An infant brother lies hungry and uncared for in the family's tiny shack. Yet Mouchette must care for her kin, attend school, work, and seemingly forge a future for a group of individuals in which there is no clear providence. One day, our heroine is caught in a rainstorm, witnessing the ongoing rivalry between Mr. Arsène, the poacher, and Mr. Mathieu, the game warden. Both men are after the affections of local barmaid Luisa and what starts out angry grows awkward, then amiable. Before she knows it, Arsène confronts Mouchette. He takes her to his cabin, convinces her that he's killed Mathieu, and then, in a moment of drunken indirectness, rapes the young girl. Alibis are put in place, and Mouchette fears she will forever wear the stain of her attack. Indeed, when Arsène is captured, the town turns against the little girl, believing that her reputation is as much responsible for the situation as the man behind bars. After her mother dies, Mouchette is lost. Will she face a lifetime caring for her abusive dad? Or is there another way out of this misery?
In some ways, Mouchette is the first pure punk-rock icon. If she weren't a character in a quintessential French film from the late '60s, she'd be fronting a band of riot grrrls, spitting out her lyrics like a dirty-haired horror to an overly enthusiastic crowd. She's got the sneer down pat, and her utter contempt for the world is written all over her haggard hardened face. She's Nancy Spungeon without the heroin habit and the whining caterwaul, an unpleasant Poly Styrene (of X-Ray Specs) in the making. It's too bad she never gets a chance to saddle up with that Eurotrash answer to the genre's DIY directness, Plastic Bertrand, and become a solid New Wave symbol like Nena or the U.K.'s Kim Wilde. Sadly, our little garage-rock reject is destined to die—if not physically, than spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and symbolically. Thus is the fate of living within director Robert Bresson's cinema of cruelty. Famous for films like Au hasard Balthazar and Diary of a Country Priest, the famed French auteur enjoyed matching realism with religion to examine salvation, redemption, and the transcendence of the human spirit. Unfortunately, his characters are required to suffer for their soul, the pain part and parcel of Bresson's thematic pretense.
Delivered without the comfortable context we expect from most films, Mouchette (translated as "Little Fly") starts in the middle of things—rifts between a local gameskeeper and a notorious poacher, family and child, girl and the rest of the local citizenry. Instead of filling us in on narrative details, Bresson begins with several close-ups, cutting between men watching each other and game birds being trapped by homemade snares. Quickly we move to the main character, a grimy little girl walking to school. She seems lost in her own thoughts, uncomfortable in her horrid hand-me-down clothes and desperately dirty hair. After class, she returns to a home with a dying mother, an abusive father, and a whining newborn who requires some manner of maternal care. Naturally, Mouchette is left to do and take it all, fixing the coffee with a well-honed flair or suffering a smack from a suspicious parent. She's peasant and slave, daughter and dominant household figure. As hard as she struggles against the pressures of keeping her impoverished clan comfortable (she even works on Sundays at the local bar to make drink money for her Dad), she is frantic to break free. All she needs is something—or someone—to loosen the bonds of overriding burden.
Her salvation sort of arrives in the form of local outlaw Arsène. He's a scoundrel, a rummy rogue with a bottle in his hand and a thirst for more than just wine. Though he comes across as mostly harmless, engaging in his battle of wills with game warden Mathieu more for sport than spite, there is something unsettling about his demeanor. Sine he has stolen the local barmaid who our married official has had his eye on for quite some time, his affection drives Mathieu to more dire ideas of enmity. After being caught in a horrible rainstorm, Mouchette overhears Arsène and Mathieu fighting. Before she knows it, the criminal is taking her to his hideout, providing a fire for warmth and some advice as an alibi. He wants Mouchette to lie for him, to swear she saw him some other place, some other time. He fears something fatal has happened to the warden and guilt is eating away at his soured soul. Naturally, our lonely child is more than willing to help, hopelessly addicted to any attempted kindness or consideration. This, in turn, allows Arsène to first protect, then violate the trusting teen in a sequence that's shocking in its suggestion and subtlety. Like the rest of the film, the sexual assault on Mouchette is loaded with mixed messages, unclear motives, and uncomfortable considerations. If it's rape, where is her struggle? Is the final shot of the scene acquiescence or pubescent ecstasy?
Up until this moment, Mouchette has played like a series of sob stories stacked one on top of the other. Our heroine is harassed at school, taking time after classes have ended to hurl mud at the objects of her envious desire. Ravenous for something fun and frivolous, an accidental chance to ride the local carnival's bumper cars provides untold minutes of missing pleasure for a child basically bereft of essential human happiness. Life at home is all horror, and even the local boys harass her, dropping their pants in a provocation of reputation and repugnance. One of the more confusing elements of Mouchette is how our title character comes to be considered a slut. Everything we see up until the narrative turning point in Arsène's cabin seems to suggest that poverty and an unkempt facade has labeled Mouchette easy and available. It's a strange sort of sexualization, especially when you consider she's usually dressed in drab, disgusting clothes and has yet to develop any kind of womanly curves (the flat-chested barmaid Luisa is more rounded than this worked-over waif). Yet the seedy stigma is there, giving men pause and boys the reactive reason to expose themselves as Mouchette walks by. It's an odd juxtaposition, one that probably makes sense to Bresson only.
Similarly, the finale is oddly open-ended. After her night with Arsène and the end of her mother's torment, Mouchette appears to be sent through some manner of metaphysical gauntlet, forced to pass through several stages of individual interaction before coming upon a group of hunters shooting rabbits. First, she must face a local merchant who shows sympathy—that is, until she sees some tell-tale scratches on Mouchette's chest. Then Mathieu and his wife want to question the girl, telling her of Arsène's capture and their belief that he pried the child with alcohol before defiling her. After a series of semi-truths, Mouchette then moves to the parlor of a wrinkled old busybody who wants to chastise people's treatment of the dead while she provides the kind of caustic charity you just know has a price tag at the end. Then we arrive at the woods, and the men firing randomly at the scampering game in the brush. Reminiscent of a similar scene in Renoir's classic Rules of the Game, Bresson appears to be mirroring the reaction the town has had to Mouchette's life-changing circumstance. With their accusatory rifles loaded, they have taken their potshots at the tortured troublemaker, unable to sympathize with her situation because, basically, they believe she brought it upon herself. Wrapped up in a symbol of her newfound state of scandal, Mouchette sees only one solution. Unfortunately, its one we've felt coming for nearly 80 emotional minutes.
As an example of Bresson's artistic approach to film, Mouchette is not as memorable as Balthazar, lacking the overt humanness associated with that calm, cruel fairy tale. In addition, the obtuse approach to narrative clarity, using inference to fill in character and situational blanks may seem adventurous and novel, but it tends to keep us, the audience, at arm's length from the movie's poignant core. Then there are idiosyncratic touches that announce themselves in very obvious ways, details like the uncontrollable drinking that seems to go on continuously, characters and townsfolk hoisting glasses to their mouths in an endless stream of imbibing. In addition, the infant only cries "on cue." Mouchette can be randomly moving about the dilapidated cottage, yet once the movie requires another indication of her stained Cinderella existence, along comes the brat, braying like a banshee. Finally, there is a scene where Arsène falls victim to some manner of malady (from how it looks, it's epilepsy) and, as he lies there with his mouth bleeding and foam forming around his lips, Mouchette appears purposefully touched by his condition. It's scenes like these that set up the surreal dichotomy that makes this a memorable movie. But they also prevent us from getting deeper into the tragedy and turmoil taking place.
In the end, Mouchette still stands for rebellion locked in an individual unable to channel its revolutionary conceits. Were she not the town target, an obvious child marked by the makeup of her clothing, the clunking clop of her oversized shoes, and the horrendous lot life has cast for her, she'd be an icon, a martyr to the cause of all put-upon offspring. Instead, Bresson locks our heroine in a disturbing mine field and then fails to give her even the smallest semblance of a map. This means Mouchette is pre-destined to defeat, to be harmed by the evils battling to break and admonish her. Depressing doesn't begin to describe the situation here. This is more like a bizarre form of cinematic self-flagellation. One truly appreciates the way in which Bresson uses his camera, and he definitely does paint pretty portraits of pain and suffering in strident monochrome strokes. But Mouchette can frequently feel like resolute torture, a film to endure, not experience. Somewhere shuffled inside this French master's modus operandi is a meaningful discussion of universal topics and themes. The way in which they are presented, however, leaves us simultaneously wanting more and less—not the best recipe for overall motion-picture pleasure.
Again, Criterion steps up to the format's formidable demands and delivers what has to be one of the best black-and-white DVD transfers in recent memory. The amazing monochrome image, presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen format, is flaweless, looking better than a film from 40 years ago really should. Since much of the movie takes place at night, in the sunken shadows of storm-swept woods and underlit cabins, there is a fear of getting lost in all this cinematic darkness. But Bresson's beautiful camerawork is captured vividly, resulting in one of the best digital presentations ever. The Dolby Digital Mono is amazingly restrained, lacking the distortion and overmodulation we've come to expect from such a mix. As for bonus features, we are treated to a detailed and scholarly commentary (from British film scholar Tony Rayns), two different French TV show specials about Bresson and Mouchette, and the infamous trailer, long rumored to have been created by New Wave bad boy Jean-Luc Godard (he has recently confessed to doing so). All the added content here is agreeable, giving us insight into the director's demanding way of working, and the faith-based formation of many of his ideas. Add in a new essay from writer Robert Polito and you've got a compact complement of striking supplements.
Some will make the argument that all art is meant to provoke a response - good or bad, delightful or despairing. But Mouchette wants to have it all ways, to make us sick and sentimental, to have us feel and flee in repulsed compassion. It's a heady combination, a direct discord that confuses and complicates your typical moviegoing experience. Some will see the story as a clear indication of environment leading to loss. Others will see the suspect reaction to our main character and wonder why seemingly sane people have drawn such a vile set of caustic conclusions. Only in the hands of Bresson could sexual battery be liberating, the birth of a baby viewed as a yoke of unbearable human horrors. Mouchette is more than mere juxtaposition—it's coincidence complicated by routine and ritual. In all the saint's trials, no figure has supposedly suffered as much as our heroine. But it is also clear that her disposition is as responsible for her torture as her circumstance. For Mouchette, life is a lot of little burdens. Instead of bearing them, however, she seals her fortunes with her reactions. Poor child.
Not guilty. And guilty as sin. All and none.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-Length Audio Commentary from Film Scholar Tony Rayns.
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