June 23, 2008


Mouchette is a dark and disturbing film. Some critics consider it too depressing to be comfortable viewing- even amongst the work of Robert Bresson, the grim Catholic master of the directors, many view it as the saddest and most wretched of his works. Devoid of grace, devoid of religion, the world that Mouchette portrays is ultimately a pagan one. This is the Catholic view of Paganism and ultimately it is Bresson's commentary upon the depressing nature of the world and our inability to get out of that world. Despite that Bresson leaves us in no doubt of his underlying sympathy for human beings- this is not as say Lars Von Trier's films often are an assualt on the very idea of being human, rather this is an assault on the merely human. Central to the film is the character of Mouchette, played exquisitely by Nadine Nortier who never appeared in another film but fills this one with her character, her emotion and more than anything her expressive face. Nortier's performance is enough to convince one that though the world is depressing there are things worth fighting for within it.

Mouchette is a heart rending film- perhaps because it is so close to reality. The film is set in a small peasant village at some time in the mid-twentieth century. Mouchette is a fourteen year old girl- at a brutal convent school- whose mother is dying and whose father and brother are alcoholic wastes of space. She is a loner, hated by the other girls in her school, excluded from their games and their growing up. Bresson captures a real moment of adolescent exclusion- he shows the other girls trying on perfume, an emblem of their budding sexuality, Mouchette excluded hides behind a hillock and throws mud at them. They ignore her, riding off with the sexy older boys. Mouchette cannot even touch these little princesses and half in despite, half in envy she hates them. Bresson really captures that truth about what it is to be a loner and an adolescent- the sort of half light that you dwell in more than any other director I have ever seen.

He also captures the fact that so many dislike Mouchette because she is actually not that likable. Watching the film, it made me question how as a parent you could love Mouchette- of course you could and would but she is unbearable in many scenes. She mumbles obscenities towards the adults in view- often without provocation. Like most teenagers she dwells in an imaginery world where a man who brutalises her is her lover and she lives amidst a dream. She is often surly, she is definitely ignorant. But as I write it I know I am being too harsh- for there are lovable things about her- and perhaps Bresson's greatest acheivement in Mouchette is that despite all of those things I mention above- it is hard to come out of this film without liking its main character. She is sympathetic, she bears the whole weight of her family and her lonely self sufficiency is the kind of dreaminess that alternately bears the names madness, introspection and independence. You can see that this is a girl who with nurturing could become an amazing twenty five year old.

Nurturing though is the key and part of the issue in the film is that she attempts all the time to reach out to others and they always knock her back. Solitude is her only refuge. In that sense death is her only refuge and becomes her spiritual retreat. Like the ancient philosophers unable to seek out other humans through the grace of God and the light of scripture, the only force that the grim Bresson acknowledges as enabling human social interraction in a positive way, she is reduced to the end of suicide. Every time she knocks at other people's doors the door is thrown back into her face- her father holds her in contempt, her teacher beats her up, her schoolmates ignore her, her brother is oblivious to her, only once on a dodgem car driving it against a boy she spotted does she seem to attain any happiness. Nortier's flirtatious smile at that point lights up her face and we see Mouchette as she might be, shyly smiling behind her curls, instead of scowling at a world of hate and siding with drunkards, criminals and fools against that world. As Christ did so she does- siding with the outcast, but unlike the living God she cannot remake for a few society, she has to retreat as the philosopher into death.

The film is eschatological but it is also a meditation upon the role of the sexes in French society. What I found interesting in that sense was the way that it balances and can be framed against another great film, Summer with Monica, by perhaps the only director whose vision matches that of Bresson, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman's film is about in part the way that men's lives repeat those of their fathers. Bresson does the same thing but for women- all the women in this family despite the warnings from the previous generation, are drawn towards the useless men who drink all day and brawl all night. The point though similarly to Bergman is that such dysfunctional backgrounds cause a longing for love that creates a vulnerability. Like Bergman's protagonist Mouchette desires love so much, she will assume that any gesture from anyone, however inappropriate, is a gesture of love. But what Bergman and Bresson's films have in common: and perhaps is a theme of the 20th Century, is that the men in them are much less vital than the women.

But that is a side point, ultimately this is a film about the darkness of the human soul. It is about the darkness that surrounds us, and the way that without a Catholic faith, in Bresson's view we are abandoned to the darkness of our own society without a fragile and quietist faith. What Bresson believed and it is a belief that I do not believe myself is that the fall corroded humanity, corroded it to such an extent that only through sainthood- only through what Rosselini described in his life of St Francis- could human redemption be acheived. Mouchette is not totally evil- she could be redeemed but not in our society or by our actions according to Bresson. If you, as I do, think that one of the themes of cinematic thought is the search for sainthood in the world after the great wars, then Mouchette is the darkest Catholic argument, the most pessimistic suggestion, and in a place where Catholicism and Calvinism become the same it rejects the Arminian conscience of most cinema, stressing the degree to which we are lost as upon a darkling plain, that the sea of faith is at the ebb and sun falling down the sky.