21.3.16

Mouchette, Robert Bresson, 1967


Mouchette: Girl, Interrupted

By Robert Polito

“Between thought and expression”—as Lou Reed wrote in the Velvet Underground song “Some Kinda Love”—“lies a lifetime.” Mouchette, and maybe all Robert Bresson’s inexhaustible, majestic films, transpire in that puzzling space “between,” that incalculable “lifetime.” How, for instance, does a director as visually acute as Bresson and so insistent on “the resources of cinematography and the use of the camera to create” also imply the urgency of the unseen, the ineffable, the otherworldly? How does a filmmaker so attentive to metaphysical demands honor the press of our physical existence, whether everyday or tragic? The marvel of Mouchette inheres in the elegance, obstinacy, and capaciousness of Bresson’s double-mindedness. A rape edges into tenderness, suicide emerges as at once holy and appalling, and scene upon scene invokes, simultaneously, spiritual despair and an afterlife.

Mouchette (1967) was Bresson’s final black-and-white film before he switched over to color for Une femme douce, in 1969. And there are vestiges throughout of the mournful, formally exacting work he created during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as intuitions of the tonal complexity and even fiercer pessimism that infused his late style. Mouchette herself is at least as solitary as Michel in Pickpocket (1959), and her village proves as claustrophobic as Fontaine’s prison cell in A Man Escaped (1956). Like Diary of a Country Priest (1951),Mouchette tracks hereditary alcoholism in the “malicious” French countryside, and Bresson adapted both movies from novels by Georges Bernanos, a gifted exponent of what he designated “Catholic realism” and also the author of the libretto for the Francis Poulenc opera Dialogues des Carmelites. Shooting on Mouchette started soon after Bresson finished Au hasard Balthazar (1966), and Mouchette seems a combination of the suffering Marie and the donkey, Balthazar, much as the hunting (rabbits) and poaching (partridges) episodes once again analogue human and animal misfortunes.

Yet Mouchette registers a departure from early Bresson as much as a summing up. Philosophically, or theologically, suicide no longer arises as inevitably redemptive, as purely (in novelist Dennis Cooper’s tense phrase) “a tragic segue into the comforting delusion of heaven.” Mouchette foretastes the desperate convulsions of Bresson’s last films, The Devil, Probably (1977) and L’argent (1983). There are also prickly cinematic variations and reversals. A distinguishing gesture of A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, and especially Diary of a Country Priest involved the repetition, sometimes the tripling, of an event—we see a close-up of a handwritten notebook page; then listen as a voice-over speaks the words; finally, someone performs the actions we have just heard and read. For Mouchette, Bresson folded this stylistic signature inside out, and instead of reiteration advanced a sort of stutter step, often signaled by a disruption of image and sound.

A brief prologue introduces this oblique sound-image design and lodges a story line in the form of a question. The scene, the film in miniature, enacts a riddle of presence and absence. A woman we later recognize as Mouchette’s dying mother abruptly sits before us, crying, talking. “What will become of them without me?” she asks. “I can feel it in my breast. It’s like a stone inside.” The woman rises, but Bresson’s camera, instead of following her, stays fixed on the spot she has just departed, inside—we now discern—a church. Against the vacant frame we hear the loud click-clack of her shoes as she walks away, and then Claudio Monteverdi’s Magnificat. The rest of the film tracks a reply to her tearful inquiry, perhaps her prayer, about the fate of her family, particularly her daughter Mouchette. But on subsequent viewings, after we understand who the woman is and her situation, cruxes still abound. The “stone” indicates her fatal physical illness, yet isn’t the word also emblematic of the adamantine misery that numbs her family, the entire town? Does the empty frame betoken, as the Magnificat hints, her ascent into heaven? Or do empty frames anticipate greater, possibly eternal, emptiness, as the disappearing footsteps suggest? She can’t go on with the world, the prologue further proposes, yet the world can go on without her.

Mouchette arranges a disquieting mix of naturalism and disorientation. The vistas of the film look matter-of-factly impoverished, brutal, and desolate, but Bresson recurrently shuns transitions, radiates noises—voices, trucks, a baby—independent of visual sources, and insinuates reactions prior to causes. “The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer,” Bresson remarks in Notes on a Cinematographer. “The eye (in general) superficial, the ear profound and inventive.” Like her mother, and as if in prediction of her suicide, Mouchette tends to exit the frame before Bresson cuts to the next shot, though from the outset she comes across as earthy rather than ethereal, her body hugging the ground, as when she crouches along a roadside to toss mud at her classmates, stomps her feet in a puddle, grinds dirt into a fancy carpet, or rolls downhill into a pond. In her oversize clogs, Mouchette always seems off-kilter, as Bresson’s strategy of low shots—legs, hands, skirts, shoes—disorders her childhood. Even her time line is unsteady—the music during the bumper-car interlude at the local fair secures a 1960s setting, but inside her destitute house it might as well still be World War II.

The coordinates of Mouchette are drinking and male power. Mouchette’s father and brother haul contraband liquor and grimly toast in celebration of their delivery. Alcohol is consumed before and after Sunday worship. The poacher, Arsène, drains his canteen of gin when he rapes her, and his bloody fight with Mathieu, the gamekeeper, dissolves into amiable imbibing. Her mother asks for gin on her deathbed, then warns Mouchette, “Make sure you never get taken in by lazy workmen or drunks.” In his novel, Bernanos links the rape to her other travails as the child of a dipso­maniac: “It was like one of those endless nightmares of uniform horror which, as a real alcoholic’s daughter, she often had to endure throughout a whole night and whose full memory only really came back much later, at supper time, when she had carried it with her all day like an invisible animal attached to her body.”

Sexual aggression and masculine bluster infect the countryside like a congenital defect. Early on, some boys expose themselves to Mouchette, and later call her “rat face.” Her father shoves her twice, first into church, and then as she flirts with a young man at the fair. Mathieu trails Arsène not so much for his illegal traps and snares as for their rivalry over Louisa, a dour bartender. There is a mechanical core to this antic, destructive motion—Mouchette’s father keeps on driving after he has collapsed onto his bed, improvising a steering wheel from his cap. The women of the town, too, absorb this lurid poison. “Little slut,” a shopkeeper snaps at Mouchette, observing the telltale scratches on her chest.

For Mouchette, love, sex, empathy, service, humiliation, and force are all bound up together. Although a child, she functions as caretaker for her family, yet she is an unseasoned, lackadaisical steward, spilling coffee and milk, and sloppily swaddling her baby brother. Her response to her mother’s death is to fall asleep. Bernanos renders Mouchette’s encounter with Arsène as a continuation of the cruelty she suffers at home: “In her child’s mind, the memory of that violence was somehow mixed with that of many others, and her reason could scarcely distinguish it from her father’s savage beatings.” But Bresson’s bleaker vision here always sees double. He deftly affirms Arsène as an alternative to her domestic violations, as well as their latest installment. Arsène manifestly wishes to protect Mouchette, even as he attacks her. She identifies with Arsène’s troubles and his revolt, hugging him finally while he struggles on top of her.

From the drinking to the violence, the strangled birds to the wounded rabbits, Mouchetteinscribes a fever dream. Long shots that overwhelm the human actors with landscape play against close-ups that block perspective. Inside and out, there is always a “cyclone,” as Arsène and Mouchette naively tag the storm that agitates their world. Mouchette apprehends her future in the hunted creatures, but also in Louisa’s drudgery, her mother’s sickness, and Arsène’s shame. Her parents, the teacher who yanks her by the neck over to the piano as though she were one of Arsène’s partridges, the old women who demean and mortify her, Mathieu—the figures of ostensible authority are suspect, tainted, their morality indistinguishable from neurosis, terror, and self-delusion.

Mouchette twice tries to tell her mother what happened to her with Arsène during her night in the woods, but each time she stops, interrupted by a crying baby and by her mother’s passing. Because of her suicide, Mouchette’s life is another interrupted story—and Bresson doesn’t show us an image of her body entering the water, recording instead the sounds of her splash. The Magnificat returns as the camera lingers over the space that she, like her mother at the start of the film, has now vacated, an empty frame. Once again, we might view this as Mouchette’s release, as a gift, but if her death is akin to grace, Bresson never lets us forget that her suicide is also desperate, pathetic, a dead end.

A poet and essayist, Robert Polito is the author of Savage Art: The Biography of Jim Thompson, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, among many other books.

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