Thursday Editor’s Pick: Mouchette (1967)

by on April 12, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs April 19 at 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

If you missed out on Film Forum’s major retrospective earlier this year, Bresson makes it across the river to BAM.

When asked about Robert Bresson in an interview, Ingmar Bergman responded: “Oh, Mouchette! I loved it, I loved it!”
And if J. Hoberman can’t convince you, nothing can:

Bluntly put, to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures—it’s to have missed that train the Lumiére brothers filmed arriving at Lyon station 110 years ago.
Mouchette, made eight years after Pickpocket, is less celestial and more grounded, based on a novel by Georges Bernanos. Bernanos is a Catholic writer, but in adapting his story of a wretched adolescent girl, Bresson evokes a world from which something—perhaps God—has withdrawn. “What will they become without me?” Mouchette’s mother asks the camera in a stark, pre-credit prologue.
The film’s final movement, following the heroine through her last morning, might be called “The Passion of Mouchette”—it ends on a note that is at once utterly inconsequential and irrevocably final. As always, Bresson signifies rather than dramatizes action. The filmmaker professed to hate theater, and yet in Mouchette, the world itself is a mystical stage. Like any genius, Bresson made rules in order to break them.


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

This 1966 film is probably the most punishing and intense of Robert Bresson’s studies of modern martyrdom, a story of a teenage peasant girl whose experiences of the world lead her, irresistibly, to suicide. If you don’t know Bresson’s work, this isn’t the place to start (you may never go back), but it’s a remarkable film: dark, compressed, shattering.

Wally Hammond for Time Out (London):

Adapted from a Georges Bernanos story, Mouchette describes the life and tribulations of a poor, barely mature peasant girl (played with sullen but affecting grace by non-professional Nadine Nortier), and remains a magnificent and deeply rewarding example of Bresson’s stripped-down methods of cutting and framing, sound and dialogue, performance and movement. Mouchette’s suffering has been read as religious parable, whereby her ostracism at school, the cruel neglect by her father, the insinuating glances of the villagers and her gruelling domestic duties stand for the Stations of the Cross. But whatever Bresson’s spiritual intentions the film provides boundless examples of cinema at its most sublime. In his angry yet compassionate denunciation of a rural society corrupting and undoing an unorthodox angel by self-interest, immorality, alcoholism and spiritual bankruptcy, the director conducts you to the heart of life’s paradox.



Mark McElhatten for Film Comment:

An abject outcast in the narrow desert of her provincial town, the 14-year-old Mouchette is a kind of shock absorber of life lessons, experiencing a nocturnal rainstorm as a psychic “cyclone,” rape as a kind of baptism and secret pact, flirtation on the bumper cars as convulsive jolts of joy killed by a slap. “Christian and sadistic,” Jean-Luc Godard intoned archly in the trailer he created for the film, but the darkly sublime Mouchette is a partially heretical and a deeply moving work of art. Rigorously unsentimental but not at all ruthless, it is a film of unsparing empathy. Standing alongside cinema’s greatest achievements, it finds Bresson at the crossroads. Like his previous films it’s shot in starkly textured black and white, and connects those earlier works of entrapment, spiritual liberation, and redemption with his final visions of radical disjunction and despair, set in luminous delimited colors.


Bergman elaborates:

You see, now I’ll tell you something about Mouchette. It starts with a friend who sees the girl sitting and crying, and Mouchette says to the camera, how shall people go on living without me, that’s all. Then you see the main titles. The whole picture is about that. She’s a saint and she takes everything upon herself, inside her, everything that happens around her. That makes such an enormous difference that such people live among us. I don’t believe in another life, but I do think that some people are more holy than others and make life a little bit easier to endure, more bearable. And she is one, a very, very simple one, and when she has assumed the difficulties of other human beings, she drowns herself in a stream.



Richard Corliss for TIME’s Top 100 Movies of All Time:

Robert Bresson, his detractors would say, has a lot to answer for. In 13 films over 40 years, he developed the whole slim repertoire of exalted minimalism. Blank glances that suggest both sanctity and reproach; pregnant silences that speak libraries of meaning; an hour of mundane injustices that often explode into beatings, murders, suicides galore—these have become the vocabulary, the very clichés, of European and Asian art-house cinema. But just as we needn’t hold Steven Spielberg accountable for every crappy-sappy kids’ adventure, we shouldn’t blame Bresson for creating an art form that literally hundreds of imitators reduced to non-movie sterility. Bresson’s films, however austere and obsessed with each man’s own private Calvary, have a precision of imagery, an understanding of character, that gives them life, makes them a joy to watch. Mouchette, one of the purest Bressons, is the story of a teenage outcast (Nadine Nortier) so abused by everyone in her village that death seems like God’s caress, and so maladroit that she must try three times before she succeeds in drowning herself. Its effect as you watch it is beautifully unforgiving; as you recall it, brutally radiant.


Jean-Luc Godard’s trailer for the film:

Joshua Rothkopf for Time Out New York:

Watching Robert Bresson’s heartbreaking Mouchette, it’s hard not to imagine all the ways that Hollywood would ruin it. Sure, let the title character be an impoverished teen scraping her way through a trying adolescence—but let’s make sure she has a kicky sense of style! We’re fine with Mouchette throwing clods of dirt at her classmates, but what about a sassy pal for her to befriend? A cute French boy next door?
Mouchette gets none of these things; indeed, it only goes from bad to worse for her in her tiny provincial town, a place of predatory older men, abusive schoolmarms and snobby shopkeepers. All the more reason, then, for us to treasure her magnificent surliness, supplied by young Nadine Nortier, a debuting actor who mysteriously never made another film. Bresson’s gift was to strip his “models” of all pretense—indeed, of all art—until all that was left for them to portray was the uninflected truth. Of all his films, none puts this technique to the test more thoroughly, and with such passionate results, as Mouchette, a pure-eyed fable of the downtrodden. You can recognize the character’s teary gaze—and single moment of delirious ecstasy, in a fairground’s bumper-car course—in the deeply humane works she’s inspired: Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever, the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta. It is a cinematic tradition of, let’s face it, utter miserablism, but one that we as human beings can’t afford to be without.


Acquarello for Strictly Film School:

Robert Bresson distills the superficial portrait of the archetypal gamin in order to derive the indelibly bleak and caustic cinematic image of Mouchette. Hardly the hapless waif or endearing pixie, Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is all too human: a slovenly, unremarkable, and asocial adolescent neglected by a terminally ill mother (Maria Cardinal) and an abusive, alcoholic father (Paul Hebert). She hides behind a ravine after school, throwing dirt at other children. She jumps into a puddle in her church clothes on her reluctant way to mass. She purposely tracks mud at a neighbor’s rug, after the elderly woman offers to donate clothing for her mother’s funeral. But there are also subtly poignant moments of humanity: an abbreviated encounter with a boy at a carnival; concealing her mother’s alcohol consumption by adding water to a bottle of gin; attending to the helpless game poacher, Arsene (Jean-Claude Guilbert), who has suffered a seizure. Drawn into complicity by Arsene’s seeming kindness, she stays at his house during a rainstorm, and is violated. Returning home, her attempts to recount the painful episode are truncated by her mother’s incessant instructions and, eventually, her death. In the morning, attempting to escape the misery of the situation, she leaves the house on an errand, only to find the same cruelty beyond its walls.
Bresson’s use of spare and minimal camera work serves a greater purpose than to merely provide a signature style. From the extreme close-ups of the opening scene, showing only Arsene and Mathieu’s (Jean Vimenet) eyes, to the headless shots of people in the bar, Bresson creates a metaphor for the fractured soul. Mouchette is profoundly alone, incomprehensibly searching for connection and acceptance, but is answered with betrayal and violence. Note the analogy of the two animal sequences in the film: illustrating the struggle to live, the crushing of the spirit, and the inevitable surrender to its fate. In essence, we are Mouchette – foundering and incomplete – seeking redemption from the misery of existence, incapable of articulating the pain – resigned to our own private hell.



Tom Milne:

A masterpiece: A Bresson film pure and simple with its extraordinary correspondances between sound and gesture to evoke the unspoken and the unseen. No one but Bresson, for instance, could have conceived that extraordinary dialogue between hands, veiled eyes, and inanimate objects wwhich pinpoints the relationship between Arsene, Louisa and the gamekeeper. And no one but Bresson, surely could have imagined the extraordinary ritual of the ending, which offers Mouchette three chances of salvation but leaves her to find her own grace in death.
In Mouchette, as in Balthazar, the apprehension of the physical world is extraordinarily acute, both visually and aurally. Apparently irrelevant shots – close-ups of glasses on a counter, of the headlamps on a lorry, of the gamekeeper’s hands as he talks to Louisa – are given an inexplicable, lowering significance, precisely because the objects seen are autonomous, completely without symbolism. Like the squalor of the village and the beauty of the surrounding countryside, they are simply there, impartial witnesses to rather than actors in Mouchette’s tragedy. So, too, with the soundtrack. Throughout the film Bresson’s distrust of the actor seems to have spread to the spoken word. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, replaced by vivid, almost tangible noses – the clinking of bottles, traffic roaring past on the unseen highway, shattering china – to a point where emotions are so completely conveyed by gestures, sounds and objects that a non-French speaker would have no difficulty in understanding Mouchette even without subtitles.



Bill Mousoulis for Senses of Cinema:

Arguably shows Bresson at the zenith of his powers. Mouchette is like a reworking of some aspects of Balthazar. There is the same (semi) rural setting, the same focus on a teenage girl’s experience, the same cruelty, suffering, destruction. But its overall form is remarkably different: Balthazar is set over many years and composed of short fragments, whereas Mouchette is set over a 24-hour period and is composed of only several lengthy, unified sequences.
In Balthazar, there is a lovely fragment near the end of the film of Marie’s mother lamenting over her recent losses. Mouchette opens with a similar mother’s lament, in one of the cinema’s most stunning opening shots. It’s appropriate that this lament opens the film, for Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is already far advanced in her suffering. Marie undergoes a process of corruption; Mouchette (though younger) is already world-weary and tarnished. It is a shock seeing such an earthy female type in a Bresson film – he usually casts waif or pretty types. Mouchette is caring and resilient, but also sullen and naive. The film perfectly captures her troubled existence. It is somewhat less effective in expressing the momentousness of what happens to her over the stormy night (maybe Bresson’s style is limited in some contexts?), but it is still a painful and moving film, probably Bresson’s most conventional and accessible (along with A Man Escaped).
Robert Bresson has claims to being one of the cinema’s true geniuses. An exquisite stylist, he created a cinematic language onto himself. His films are both light and profound, both severe and tender, both bleak and life-affirming. Au Hasard, Balthazar and Mouchette are two masterpieces in a body of work full of great films.



Philip Lopate for the 1999 Bresson symposium, in Film Comment:

It’s been said, I forget by whom, that the hardest thing to pull off in a narrative is a justified suicide. After all, some people suffer so much in life without killing themselves, while those who do often appear insufficiently motivated. Suicide can seem both an over- and under-determined action, finally inexplicable, mysterious (in short, the territory where Robert Bresson likes to hang out). It would seem that adult suicides in movies cannot help but take on an air of nobility and mature self-judgment, of Sidney Carton sacrifice. More germane to louchette, comparatively speaking, would be the child-suicides in Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and Europa 51. A child cannot hope to know enough about the twists of fortune ahead to make an enlightened assessment; therefore, the decision of minors to take their own lives is all the more horrifying, and must indict the adult society surrounding them. Rossellini and Bresson share a Christian regard for child-suicide as so monstrous an evil that it must awaken theological chords in the viewer. The difference is that Rossellini is more interested in the sociohistorical context that would spawn such a response, whereas Bresson fights shy of blaming the zeitgeist, being more intrigued with the possibilities of freedom and revolt as a desperate expression of the awakening soul.
Visually, the film has the black-and-white graphic density of an Atget photograph, and the material conviction and focused simplicity of a Sjostrom silent. Indeed, a good part of Mouchette plays like a silent film; dialogues are minimal, characters respond mostly through glances, there is a judicious buildup of closeups to pull the narrative along. (In other respects a hero of mise-en-scene filmmaking, Bresson never signed on to the puritanical suppression of closeups: think of Pickpocket.) His camera often stays low, picking out legs and skirts and shoes before giving us more perspective or orientation. One of the ways Bresson structures the film is by setting up a bit of business, then repeating it later: the motif of the boys who call out lewd proposals to Mouchette occurs twice, as does her dirtthrowing, as does her father and brother. standing side by side, belting down a shot of wine. This last image has the indelible graveness of a solemn rite.
Those of us who are less hostile to psychological explanation, or more skeptical of the spiritual promise embedded in the inexplicable, might argue that a young girl like Mouchette, who had just been through such an eventful twenty-four hours (losing her virginity and her mother), would probably not be inclined to kill herself right away, in “real life.” But it is the job of Bresson, as a religious artist in a secular age, to increase our sense of awe, by the shaping power of art, and intensify the presentiment of destiny, just as it is our job, as cinephiles, to go to Bresson, among others, to feel that there is some reason and design behind suffering incomprehensible as it may be in our daily lives. Mouchette lies down on the riverbank, in the last scene of the film, and experimentally tests the angle of the grass, giving it an almost playful half-try, like a little kid enjoyably rolling downhill, before spiraling more purposely and angrily into the lake. The camera stays on the reeds and the water as Mouchette tumbles out of the picture. Who can fathom it?



Michael Atkinson for IFC:

French nightmares are almost by definition mundane — like Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” (1967), a wounding, epochal analysis of a neglected and abused teenage girl on her blank-faced way to the grave. In Bresson’s no-nonsense hands, this grim fable becomes a pantomime stations of the cross, so completely focused on sensuous details, ethical interrogation and the fastidious lasering-away of movie bullshit (like acting and action) that it comes close to the simple thrust of a medieval Christian icon. That the film is a saint’s passion doesn’t mean it’s overtly Christian — Bresson is far less a spiritualist than a precision pragmatist, with a holy man’s crystal-clear moral vision. (This goes for Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Au Hasard Balthazar” as well, making up a kind of trilogy of the down-trodden.)
Bresson shoots tragedy with an unblinking, unpunctuated lens — he corners you into empathy without making it easy or easily forgotten. Still, however you read the Bresson experience, he arguably stands as the most mysterious and elusive master filmmaker, demanding and repaying patience like no one else. The large library of critical scholarship on him still hasn’t fully sussed him out, or fully translated his intensely particular strategy into a relatable idea. He’s a tough cookie, and it may be that his movies cannot be written about eloquently, but only watched.


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