Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) tells the sad story of a disadvantaged and friendless teenage girl in rural France. Usually there was a hiatus of several years between Bresson’s productions, but Mouchette was filmed immediately after his Au Hasard Balthazar and features some common elements and themes with that film. Both depict ill-fated girls living a tormented life in rural French society, which itself is portrayed as violent, mean spirited, and alcohol besotted. Because of these thematic commonalities, the two films are often paired by critics and held in mutually high esteem by Bresson’s admirers. There is one striking difference between the two, however. While Au Hasard Balthazar was, unusually for Bresson’, based on his own script, Mouchette was adapted from an existing text – in this case a novella by Georges Bernanos, another of whose works had served as the basis for Bresson’s masterful Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, 1950). But apart from the nature of authorship, there are other distinctions and points of comparison between Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar, as I will elaborate further.
Bresson’s films have been considered to be spiritual, or even religious, and certainly his films reveal the influence of his Jansenist Roman Catholic upbringing. But I would argue that they are not so explicitly religious, although they do evoke the fundamental Existentialist issues that are invariably addressed by religions and theological schools. After all, Bresson characterised himself as an agnostic, so we should not really expect him to be completely obsessed by religious schema. Perhaps it is best to fall back to the term, ‘transcendental”, which Paul Schrader used to characterize Bresson’s work. In any case Mouchette represents a further progression in Bresson’s movement towards a pessimistic view of human nature and the prospects of redemption. Whereas redemption was at least held as possible in Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped (1956), and Pickpocket (1959), when we proceed further and get to The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), and Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), the possibilities of redemption seem, at best, only subjective. Finally with Mouchette, the picture moves even further away from contemplative melancholy and closer to complete despair. In spite of its gloomy outlook, however, Mouchette was named in a 1972 poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine to be among the top twenty greatest movies ever made.
By the time of the making of this film, Bresson’s cinematic aesthetics were famously austere, even severe. He restricted himself to nonprofessional actors, who were instructed to read their lines in a flat, automatic fashion, without the slightest trace of theatrical interpretation. This was done in order to present the cinematic viewing experience as something original, rather than as a photographed version of some narrative that had been situated in another form of expression, such as a novel or a play. As I remarked in my review of Balthazar,
. . . Bresson always forces the viewer to construct his own, individual diegesis. Bresson argued that when we experience immediate events in our everyday lives, there is no causality. A causal understanding of experience is only produced later, upon reflection. Bresson wanted the audience to have this direct causal-construction experience with his film narratives, and for this reason he didn’t want his actors (which he preferred to call “models”) to inject their own interpretive causal renderings in their roles. He didn’t want them to “perform”, because this would inevitably lead them to introduce their personal causal interpretations that would disadvantage the constructive experience for the viewer. It is for this reason that he insisted on those flat performances of his models, with downcast eyes that disconnected the players from each other. As a consequence, each viewer of a Bresson film will have to construct his or her diegetic interpretation purely within the framework of his or her own experiences.It follows then that the viewer often sees events in Bresson’s films in something of a reverse order: first the events depicting an effect are shown, and then the events that provide a causal explanation of that effect are shown moments later. Events presented this way can place the viewer into a mode of existential experience aligned with the film’s protagonist. In the case of Mouchette, Bresson’s concern with aspects of causality is a key issue, since the causal motivations of Mouchette’s final actions are open to our interpretation and somewhat problematic.
The story of the film, which proceeds through four main sections, is covered in some detail, because a number of elements accumulate to create the overall theme.
I. Setting the Scene (11 minutes). This comprises four disconnected scenes that separately introduce the principal characters, whose identities and relationships will be revealed gradually.
- A lone woman laments her declining condition, saying, “what will become of them without me”. After she leaves, the camera remains fixed on her empty chair, thereby establishing the visual motif of absence and isolation that will dominate the film.
- A game warden in the forest eyes a poacher snaring birds. Filmed almost exclusively in closeups, the scene compels the viewer to patch together the images and to try and make the connections.
- The game warden walks back into town and passes some girls on their way to school. One of the girls in the foreground hears her name called, “Mouchette”.
- The game warden, Mathieu, goes to a tavern and earnestly propositions the barmaid, Louisa, but she seems indifferent. Then two bootleggers unload a truck full of whiskey crates and deliver them to the tavern. After downing shots of whiskey, they drive home, where Mouchette is attending her sick mother (the woman seen initially).
III. Mouchette’s Night Out (26 minutes). The next day, Mouchette is back to flinging mud at her classmates again after school. But the other schoolgirls just ignore the abuse and ride away with their boyfriends on their motor scooters, while Mouchette looks on enviously. She runs off into the nearby forest, but she gets caught in a sudden rainstorm and hides under a tree to wait it out. When the rain finally stops, it is already dark, but as she starts to walk home, she hides when she sees the gun-wielding Mathieu in search of the poacher Arsene. We then follow Mathieu, who finds and confronts Arsene. But after an initial fistfight, they fall to the ground and are soon laughing and drinking whiskey together like old comrades. Somwhat later, Arsene finds Mouchette hiding and takes her to his hut in the woods so that they can take shelter from what he calls the “cyclone”. There he confides to her that he thinks he may have killed Mathieu and demands that she testify to a false alibi that would cover him should the police question her. Wanting to remove evidence that he was in the forest that night, Arsene then takes her to the village tavern and breaks into the back room. But shortly after entering the room Arsene falls into a frightening epileptic seizure and starts thrashing on the floor. Mouchette, moved by his suffering, holds him still and then tenderly sings her school song to him as he gradually comes to. But when Arsene completely regains consciousness, he has forgotten about his confession and Mouchette’s assurances of loyalty, and so he tries to prevent her from leaving the hut to go home. Eventually he overpowers her and rapes her, and she ultimately submits.
IV. No Way Out (27 minutes). Mouchette eventually escapes from the tavern and returns home early in the morning. In a short space of time she then has a series of dispiriting experiences:
- In a daze and crying from her harrowing experience, she tries to look after the baby for her helplessly ill mother. But her mother soon succumbs to her illness and dies.
- The next morning Mouchette goes out to get milk for the baby. A grocery store lady expresses her sympathies to Mouchette concerning her mother and offers the girl chocolate. But when she sees some scratches on Mouchett’e neck, the woman rudely calls her a slut.
- On the way back to her home, Mouchette passes by the gamekeeper’s house and sees that he is perfectly OK – Arsene’s story of having killed the gamekeeper was illusory. The gamekeeper and his wife accuse Mouchette of carousing with Arsene and harshly question her, but Mouchette defiantly tells them that in fact she loves Arsene.
- As Mouchette walks home, a wealthy old lady invites her inside and gives her a shroud and some dresses. But the woman’s age and incessant talk about death only put off Mouchette, and she rebelliously whispers under her breath, “you disgusting old thing”.
- Continuing home Mouchette walks past the forest again, where men are shooting rabbits. Seeing a rabbit shot by the “sportsmen”, she rushes over to watch it in its death throes.
- After these experiences, Mouchette walks over to a pond and sits near the bank. She holds up one of the dresses that the old lady had given to her, but it tears on a branch. Apparently distraught over the spoiling of her one nice possession, she puts the torn dress over her and rolls down the hill towards the pond, perhaps merely to complete the ruination of the dress. When she sits up, she sees a tractor in the distance and calls out to it, but although the driver stares back, he does not respond. She goes back to rolling down the bank again, but now with the intent of rolling all the way into the pond. On her second attempt her suicidal act is successful, and the camera remains focused on the pond.
In fact the quest for a meaningful relationship that would establish her identity (to herself) is what underlies the film. As Bernanos and Bresson knew well, we understand ourselves in terms of our meaningful relationships with others. Mouchette is seen throughout as an “unperson” who is completely isolated from the village and not recognized as a normal human being. Her father brutalizes her; her classmates ignore her; and the village boys mock her. Throughout the film she tries the little acts of rebellion common to all children that represent minimal assertions of selfhood. She mischievously spills milk when serving her family coffee. She intentionally sings off key in her classroom. She stomps her Sunday shoes in the mud. And she scrapes her muddy shoes on the old lady’s nice carpet. These minor misdemeanors are indicative of her limited opportunities for free expression and action. Apart from her mother, there is only one person who treats her like a human being, and that is Arsene. That is why she swears that she would die for him and why she defends him to the gamekeeper even after he raped her.
But the adult world, dominated as it is by artefacts, machines, and mechanical manipulation, seems to offer her no opportunities for a self-defining human relationship. This is symbolized by both the sound of intrusively noisy trucks incessantly passing by her apartment and the boys’ motor scooters that whisk away Mouchette’s classmates. Mouchette’s one opportunity to experience this mechanical world – when she rode the bumper cars – was only a fantasy that ended in pain and humliation. Her alcohol-fueled father holds his cap and pretends he is driving his truck when he falls drunkenly into bed: mechanical control is what dominates his dreams. They all have their contraptions: her father has his truck, Mathieu and the rabbit shooters have their guns, and Arsene has his animal trap. In fact, the adult world is so artificial and schematic that, as far as Mouchette is concerned, there is a sense of unreality to it. What is real, and what is not? When Arsene and Mathieu appear to be fighting to the death in the forest, they suddenly and mysteriously start laughing and drinking together. Arsene tells Mouchette that the storm was a “cyclone”, but the next day her mother, whom she trusts, tells her that there wasn’t one. Arsene tells her that he killed Mathieu, and the next day she sees Mathieu perfectly unharmed. Was all her suffering on behalf of Arsene just a dream? After seeing her mother die in suffering and the innocent rabbit blown apart by the hunters’ rifle shots, life itself must have been held in question.
Thus Mouchette is very much an existentialist tale of loneliness and isolation, while Au Hasard Balthazar is more of an expressionistic nightmare of pure suffering. Mouchette was impaired, however, by the progressive austerity of Bresson’s now-rigid mise en scène. This is exemplified in Bresson’s differing adaptaions of the two texts by Bernanos. As literary works, both Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, and his Mouchette were told as first-person French histoires. Bresson’s earlier filming Diary of a Country Priest was faithful to Bernanos’s first-person narrative, and the result was brilliant. But by the time of the filming of Mouchette, Bresson eschewed such causation-infected narrative contrivances, to the detriment of the viewing experience. This degree of aesthetic self-discipline on the part of Bresson distances the viewer from the character of Mouchette and enervates the power of the story. Although Mouchette may be more sophisticated and more profound, Au Hasard Balthazar is more powerful.
In the last analysis, one might ask whether Mouchette was devoid of any hope at all. That final calling out to the tractor driver on the part of Mouchette in the film is reminiscent of Joseph K’s final, hopeful glance up to the lighted window in Franz Kafka’s The Trial. This was one last appeal for a meaningful interaction. Something more than the cold stare that Mouchette received might have saved her life. But those life-saving “something more” gestures are all-too rare in this world.