Written & Directed by Robert Bresson
In the early days of cinema, movies were just filmed as stageplays. Over time, filmmakers came to develop a language of film, understanding that the camera could be moved closer or further away from the performers. There could also be cuts to different places or flashbacks in time. Today all of these things seem standard, but they are part of a craft and had to be developed. Robert Bresson was a French director who worked to break away from the performance-centered model of filmmaking and refocus on the techniques. He saw that many movies were just someone aiming the camera at a performance but not really saying anything through the craft. He came to refer to his actors as models, implying they were posed by him and more like props in the stories he was attempting to tell. It probably won’t surprise you to learn Bresson had no interest in the acting schools that were coming up in the 20th century, and he hated performances that stole away from the whole picture.
Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is a teenage girl living in an isolated French village. Her father is an alcoholic, her mother is dying, and she is expected to care for her infant brother. Because of her family’s low income, Mouchette is often the focus of bullying at school. Children mock her for her clothes and hair. There is a minor point of light in her life when a kind woman buys Mouchette a ticket to the fair. She enjoys the bumper cars and has a brief flirtation with a boy but is forced to go home by her father. Another day, Mouchette gets lost during a rainstorm and crosses paths with local poacher Arsene. Arsene gets into a fight with the game warden and believes he’s killed the man. Mouchette is a witness, so he abducts her, unsure of where to go but desperate not to be apprehended. Arsene demands Mouchette lie about what happened if she is asked, and to try to ensure her silence, he rapes her. This begins a series of crushing defeats in the young woman’s life that builds up to a level she cannot handle anymore.
Bresson’s mode of working with actors was to repeat multiple takes of a scene until the elements he perceived as “performance” slipped away. The goal was to present a minimalist, raw take on the character in the scene. He understood that in his culture and many others, the open expression of emotion was not common in public. Instead, these emotions were only seen in private settings. As a result, his films are full of characters locked in tension with themselves and their world. Horrible things happen to them, and they are expected to endure that suffering without expressing themselves. Instead, the emotion would come through Bresson’s use of the camera and other elements of filmmaking.
Bresson’s worldview was of deep sympathy, seen clearly in Mouchette as the film laments her trials and the cruelty heaped on her. But he was never sentimental about things and was very matter-of-fact about specific acts of brutality when they happened. It parallels the way humans often numb themselves at the moment and only really feel what happens to us hours, days, or weeks after the fact. Mouchette for Bresson was a critique of French society and its ease at discarding the vulnerable, even reveling in their pain. Individuals are ground into the dirt by modern society, atomized into nothing, and discarded like trash. Due to social strictures inhibiting our expression, existence for Bresson is a horror show. We are trapped in layers of prison, social and psychological, unable to coherently articulate what we think, believe, and feel.
While other directors were engaged in lavish productions with gorgeous sets, original scores, and bold performances, Bresson was quietly making films in a way that mattered to him. The result is that he isn’t brought as often as more ostentatious directors like Fellini or Truffaut. His mode of wanting bare-bones raw performances led him to hire non-actors even for his lead performances. Nadine Nortier’s only film performance was here in Mouchette, which she did at 19 years old. Ingmar Bergman was a fan and influenced by the minimalist performances and craft surrounding Bresson’s films. You can see his influence in modern cinema through the type of performances found in Richard Linklater’s work and the movies of the Safdie Brothers.
To engage with a movie like Mouchette is to take on a religious experience. Bresson frames her as a contemporary martyr but not one who is canonized and will likely be forgotten by her community. The film becomes his effort to sanctify the girl, refusing to pass judgment or praise, recounting the facts of her life with clarity. The picture’s ending provides a mix of emotions, some sadness but not a bleak depression. There’s a bizarre sense of exhilaration that Mouchette has reclaimed something; she is finally now the owner of her own life.
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