Thursday 18 March 2010

Tale and performance

Mouchette, directed by Robert Bresson (1967)

Right on the heels of his great 1966 film, Au Hasard Balthazar, French film director Robert Bresson embarked on another exploration of the indignity of life, this time focusing on the life of a troubled teenage French girl from the country, one whose life was sort of a melding of the main female character from the prior film, and its titular donkey. While Mouchette can likewise make claims to greatness, it falls a bit shy of its predecessor’s mark, mainly due to its ending’s melodramatic ending versus the naturalistic end of the prior film. Granted, while both films end in their titular character’s deaths, and teen girls are wont to melodrama that donkeys are not, the ending is still relatively weak. Also, the fact that the earlier film takes place over the course of many years, whereas Mouchette takes place over, perhaps, a few weeks or months, allows the latter film a little bit more leeway to try and milk a bit of forced drama from its premise; just not enough to make its ending work.

The film opens with an attractive middle-aged woman (Marie Cardinal), who turns out to be Mouchette’s mother, in a church, bemoaning her fate, which seems to include her own death. Then the credits roll. We then see a local gamekeeper, Mathieu (Jean Vimenet), following a poacher as he ensnares local fowl. Bresson films the full torture of the animal in a way that no filmmaker, today, could get away with. There seems to be an antagonism between the two men that we see follows them to a local bar, where the gamekeeper (despite being married) desires the local barmaid, Louisa (Marine Trichet), who cares not for him, but lusts for the poacher, Arsene (Jean-Claude Guilbert). We also get to know the main character, Mouchette, a severely poor girl, of anywhere from 13 to 16 years of age (apparently, the source novel sets her age at 14, and Nortier was really 18, but the film lends no clue), who wears wooden clogs (that do not match her feet), and is an outsider at school, victim of a cruel music teacher, who abuses her, and who hates the richer girls who exclude her. Mouchette even takes to tossing dirtballs at her rivals. We see other assaults on her persona, including young perverts who take to exposing their genitalia to her, while calling her Ratface. Worst of all, is her home life. Her mother is dying, her newborn baby brother is uncared for, and her older brother and father (Paul Hebert) are bootleggers who supply the bar Louisa works in. Her older brother ignores her, and her father physically, emotionally, and verbally abuses her. The film moves swiftly through vignettes that paint a portrait of static irrelevance and despair in her life.

Then, a fair arrives in town, and Mouchette gets two lessons in human sexual relations. The first occurs when a stranger gives her a token to ride the bumper cars, and she engages in a bumpy flirtation with a handsome (and seemingly well off) boy who goes out of his way to constantly bump her, then smile. After the ride, Mouchette approaches the boy, who seems receptive, until her father intercedes, and smacks the girl for her ‘sluttiness.’ A bit later, Mouchette sees how Mathieu is laughed at by other men who see how Louisa rubs his face in her preference for taking a ride with Arsene. Interestingly, there is a brief shot of the utter shame and embarrassment on the face of Mathieu’s wife (Marie Susini) that will recur, later in the film, in both Mouchette and her mother, which links the plight of female sexuality with suffering at masculine behest.

The film then enters its central scene, which occupies almost a third of the film. One day, after school, Mouchette decides to make her way home through the woods, but a rainstorm forces her to hide. When the rain stops, it is dark outside. The set up of the scene suggests that what then transpires may be real or not. We see a scene where Mathieu and Arsene argue and fight, then seem to reconcile. Or not. Arsene stumbles upon Mouchette, then takes her to a straw hut to dry off. He may or may not have killed Mathieu. He’s not sure. Neither is Mouchette. They make up a scenario in case Mathieu is dead. Mouchette agrees to this, for reasons that may be an attraction to the older man, may be because she sees him as an outsider like her, or simply because, as she says, ‘She hates ‘them’.’ The them could be the whole world, or just the village they live in. This is left unclear.

Arsene and Mouchette then head back to town, and take refuge in the backroom of another saloon. There, they discuss the night’s events, and Arsene suffers a petit mal epileptic attack. Mouchette comforts him, and Arsene seems to threaten her, were she to speak of Mathieu. Then, he tries to get affectionate, she rejects him, and weakly tries to hide under a table. I say weakly, because the scene ends with Arsene on top of Mouchette, near a fire, and they obviously have sex- or rather- seem ready for it, when the scene fades out. The weakly comes in because the scene is often interpreted as a rape scene, even though it ends with Mouchette embracing Arsene, and clearly not resisting. Furthermore, later on, even though she cries about ‘the incident,’ and tries to tell her mother about it, she also defends Arsene to Mathieu (who was not killed- further bolstering the idea that the prior night was a dream) and his wife, as her ‘lover.’ So, the fact that she does not escape from Arsene, when she could easily outrun the recovering epileptic, the fact that her ‘hiding’ is half-hearted, the fact that she embraces his advances, and the fact that she calls him her ‘lover,’ all seem to undermine the rape argument (excepting, of course, if that jurisdiction accounted for statutory rape), and point to a semi-seduction (however awkwardly a presumably virginal teen girl might try that on an older man). And, this aspect of the film, along with its end, has been almost as controversial as the ‘rape’ scenes, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, that simply were not. Naturally, due to critical cribbing, rather than watching the actual film, most critics have repeated the claim that the sex between the two was a rape.

After the night is over, Mouchette returns home, her mother dies, and several of the townsfolk attempt token kindnesses, but these are supplemented with suspicion and suppressed rage- for what reasons are never revealed. An old woman gives Mouchette a dress for her mother’s funeral, but, on her way home, Mouchette tears it on a bush, after seeing a rabbit hunt, and one of the unfortunate beasties expire at her feet. As in the film’s opening, the real animals were hurt in the film, but for a genuine reason, a good one- high art, and are recalled long after their deaths- small solace for them, granted, but would a natural death have comforted them more? Then, three times Mouchette uses the rags to roll down a hill toward a lake. On her third attempt, she plops in, although- technically- we never actually see her body fall into the water and sink to the bottom. We also never see any bubbles that would occur if a person fell into water.

Now, whereas the end of Au Hasard Balthazar often has critics claim the donkey is dead at film’s end, when we only see the dying, this film likewise assumes a death, but whether or not we see it is not as important as in the earlier film, which ends with a gentle resignation, before the moment. This film ends with the willful ignorance of Mouchette, whether or not we see her actual end. And, as mentioned, this ending is not nearly as satisfactory, narratively, emotionally, nor logically, as the end of the donkey is. The reason is that, even if one accepts that the girl was raped and her mother died within hours of each other, she still has much going for her. And, despite this end coming from the novel the film was adapted from, Nouvelle Histoire De Mouchette, by Georges Bernanos (from whom Bresson had also adapted his film Diary Of A Country Priest), it is just not a good one; it reeks of an artifice and melodrama that is wildly at odds with Au Hasard Balthazar, especially considering how often (and surprisingly critically) correctly the two films are paired.

Many critics have ascribed this to the fact that, while Mouchette is definitely an outsider in her town, she is not a rebel, she is not subversive, therefore she seems almost fated to be crushed. I don’t see evidence for this viewpoint within the frames of the film, however. First, a good portion of this assumption comes from accepting the view that Bresson’s cinematic cosmos is one of pure acceptance of suffering, with reward in an afterlife - be it from his earliest films through his later ones. As this is only the third film of his I’ve seen, I cannot speak with authority on the others, but even in the trio (Diary Of A Country Priest, Au Hasard Balthazar, and this) I’ve seen, this is demonstrably false. Putting aside the other films, Mouchette clearly is not impassive. She resists the bullying of her music teacher, she resists the sneers of he female classmates, she does not let her father’s abuse get to her, she does not give satisfaction to the young male perverts who flash her, and she stands up to Arsene, even when alone, at night, with a grown man - a fact which again points to the fact that his sex with her was not an act of rape, and that her initial protestations were simply because she had no idea that immediate domination could be followed by pleasure, as we assume she was a virgin, and one with only a street level child’s mythology of what sex was.

Thus, when the filmmaker, when asked to define what the film was about, replied, ‘Mouchette offers evidence of misery and cruelty. She is found everywhere: wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations,’ he was either being coy or wise. Of course the film deals with such negatives, but it also deals with perseverance, pluck, and grit. And, because it does, and does so, so well, this is a major reason its ending is so poor, perhaps matching the bad ending of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. If it had only offered what Bresson claimed, then its ending would have been much better and in line with the film, but, consequently, the whole film would have been much worse!

That said, the reason the film does succeed, and rises to greatness, rests primarily on the shoulders of the lead actress, Nadine Nortier, who, despite little dialogue, conveys great depths within her character, despite being a non-professional actress at the time. On the other hand, Jean-Claude Guilbert (a professional actor who also appeared in Au Hasard Balthazar, as another drunkard, Arnold) is also very good. The rest of the cast is solid. Yet, critical missteps abound, especially when some claim Mouchette is filled with anger. Yes, there may be acts of seeming anger (tossing dirt at her female rivals), bur clearly the character of Mouchette is a walking mass of desensitisation. This would explain why she reacts the way she does to sex with Arsene, rather than seeing it as her ‘striking back’ at the world. The cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet is not spectacular, but then it need not be. It does, however, have the simple look and feel of a film shot decades earlier, and one only compare this film with a film like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, a colour film made the same year, to get a sense of just how unique Bresson’s vision was. The same is true for the scoring of the film, with little music that is not diegetic. Since the film rises and falls on its tale and performance, the technical aspects merely have to be solid, and they are.

The US DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is a very good package. The transfer of the film is first rate, as the 81 minute black and white film (Bresson’s last film sans color) is shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The special features are also quite good. They include an insert essay by Robert Polito that is short on critical masturbation, and quite pointed; the film’s original theatrical trailer by Jean-Luc Godard which, when seen against the film, is utterly at odds with it; a documentary called Travelling, which is a segment from a TV series called Cinema, and has interviews with Bresson, Nortier and Guilbert; another documentary, called Au Hasard Bresson, about the director; and also an audio film commentary by film critic Tony Rayns which flows very well, is not too scripted, is scene specific in its comments, and conveys both passion and erudition; traits too often missing in most commentaries. His lone weak spot comes when trying to explain (rather justify) the rather weak ending.

Rayns claims that death, for the girl, was preferable to life, and that Mouchette had fulfilled her life, with sex and death, in the last day of her life, with the death of the rabbit being the final straw; but there is just no evidence for this, and Rayns, himself, is dubious over Mouchette’s reaction, since she is a girl of the rural life, where hunting is a normal activity. And, while that may be what Bresson intended, and what the character may have thought, a critic needs to go beyond merely aping explanations put forth by an artist, especially in matters that so clearly demonstrate an artistic failure, and one which seems to accept, in toto, that failure, merely due to the reputation of the artist as ‘spiritual,’ therefore beyond needing to make his art cohere.

However, despite that failure, Mouchette is a great film, one whose concision heightens its power, and one whose deftness of portrayal burrows more deeply into matters than its good, but skeletal, screenplay does. One of the best techniques Bresson uses to get more out of each brief scene is through the use of repetitions of actions in unrelated scenes, which then connect those scenes to others. For example, when Mouchette’s teacher punishes her and forces her to sing a song, it is under duress. Mouchette sings that same song while trying to tend to a seizing Arsene. Mouchette is pushed by her father whenever she wants pleasure, and she then pushes Arsene before she has sex with him. There is also a scene where Mouchette is wet, working in the bar, and then gets some coins as payment. Later, in his hut, she is wet, and Arsene pays her some coins to go along with his story regarding Mathieu’s presumed death. What this does is not only link divergent scenes in a strictly visual and cinematic way, but it emphasises the elliptical and cyclical nature of the film, where recurring images and motifs abound. Yet, all of them are slightly askew, and the camera always seems to look at its lead character’s life slightly askance, as if it was somehow recapitulating the clearly warped view of life Mouchette owns. In essence, the film called Mouchette recapitulates the point of view of its character Mouchette, which allows the viewer to both ‘feel’ a bit of the character’s warp, while also being able to step back and intellectually distance oneself and ‘understand’ the character’s warp.

Whether or not Bresson intended this doubled perspective on life, it, and many of the film’s other strengths more than make up for its weak ending, and lift it to a greatness that, while it falls short of the utmost in the canon of great cinema, nonetheless makes Mouchette a film for which the term great is applied a surety. There are, certainly, worse ways to misfire, slightly or otherwise.


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