Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Nadine Nortier
Runtime: 81 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
In Short: Haunting; a depressing but moving film about cruelty and circumstance
Nadine Nortier was about eighteen when she was picked by Robert Bresson to play the title character in Mouchette, one of the maestro’s greatest works. She had no acting experience, but experience wasn’t necessary: Bresson didn’t require his actors to “act.” However, in this film, the only film Nortier ever appeared in, she gives quite possibly the most moving, gracious and stunning performance that any of Bresson’s actors ever gave. I am reminded of Maria Falconetti, who starred in only one film, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and though this film was her only role, her performance was referred to by Pauline Kael as the greatest of all time. I believe that Nortier’s performance rivals it.
Mouchette is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, and this is because Bresson tells a sad story without exaggerating a single emotion. Our displays of emotion are not triggered by soaring, melancholy music or tragic climactic revelations, but simple details of the sadness the main character encounters on her awful long trip toward death, paved with the darkness she encounters: first pity, then anger, and finally ignorance. Mouchette is not the “bullied girl cliché” that has become popular in modern films, but simply an outspoken girl with a resentment for the common people her age, and their ignorant attitudes.
The film is the story of the eponymous character, a confused and lonely young girl whose mother is dying, and whose father is a belligerant alcoholic. She is forced to care for her mother and her baby sister whilst being isolated and alone in school, reduced to hiding in bushes and throwing rocks at the girls she despises. One day she is caught in a storm and runs into the woods, where she meets Arsene, an interesting but dangerous drunken idiot who invites her back to his cabin. After he falls down drunk and begins having a seizure, Mouchette finds herself exasperated, looking after yet another person. Then he takes advantage of her, and sends her off home after having used and abused her (much of which Bresson keeps off-screen and only subtly implies). The scenes following this are nothing short of stunning, particularly one fantastic shot where Mouchette silently cries and pretends to breastfeed her sibling, expressing the desire behind every young woman’s face to be a mother, and to care for something other than herself – something she sees as valuable in a sinful, disastrous world.
Bresson’s trademark directorial techniques are visible here, and the director, hot off the set of his previous masterpiece, Au Hasard Balthazar, carries some of the genius that made that film so moving and powerful into this one too. Both films feature female characters in the lead, who are persecuted and abused by men, and who are raped. Both films are bleak, end in death, and evoke tears from their audience. Yes, Robert Bresson’s films are cynical, but that does not make them difficult to watch. At times they ostensibly are, but for me, seeing a Bresson film is entering a world of utter fascination and beauty, where the world may inarguably be a harsh and cruel place, but also one curiously stunning to observe.
Mouchette was Bresson’s last great film. A perhaps connected note is that it was also the last film he shot in black-and-white. While many of his films that followed (particularly his last, L’Argent) are bitterly cynical and terrifyingly cruel, none were as incredibly beautiful and fascinating as Mouchette, and all the films that came before that 1967 gem. Mouchette marked the end of an era for Bresson, and a transition into a new kind of filmmaking that carried most of his characteristics and styles forward, but left some key details behind. Mouchette is a film that has me entranced by its quiet beauty. It is a film unlike any other, and a treasure of Robert Bresson’s filmography. Mouchette serves as a reminder that the world can be a cruel place where the lives of the truly good end in misery, but it is also a call for the recognition of these poor, tortured souls. Bresson does not pity them, he sympathises with them, and Mouchette is like a loud, long final scream of anguish into the night, a call for justice in a world which seems completely unjust, a beg for mercy in a world which has us strapped down and locked in. More than anything else, Mouchette is a cry for something beautiful and pure in a world laced with poison and treachery.
Previous films in the Bresson-athon:
Les anges du peche (1943)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
A Man Escaped (1956)
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)