The Interior Poetry in Bresson’s ‘Mouchette’

Robert Bresson
8 December 2020

Mouchette (1967), one of French master Robert Bresson‘s many essential films, begins and ends with conspicuous absences. The opening credits roll over an image of an empty chair, out of which the title character’s mother (Marie Cardinal) has just risen after lamenting the effect her imminent death will have on her children, and the film fades to black over an extended shot of a lake into which a different character has just plunged, never again to emerge.

There’s something of life’s ineffable hollowness in these deserted frames—a specialty for Bresson, a director revered for his sense of refined, uncompromising minimalism that borders on extreme asceticism. Cinema, though it’s a medium constructed around motion and visuality, is capable of conveying stillness and emptiness potently through this kind of exaggerated silence and inaction. That is what Mouchette does.

Mouchette evidences a simple truth: childhood isn’t what we pretend it is. Though it’s a movie about a pre-teen rascal lost in the world, Mouchette cannot really be called a coming-of-age film. To come of age implies a development into an understanding of the realities of adulthood, yet as the movie begins, the title character (Nadine Nortier) is already well-versed in the kind of miserable routines and oppressive responsibilities we tend to associate with advancing age: school, work, poverty, a bedridden and fatally ill mother, a baby brother to tend to, etc. The supposed innocence and idealism of youth held as sacred by society never gets a showing here; Mouchette is abandoned the moment we lay eyes on her, and well before.


Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The insufferable adults that chaperone her every movement—her father (Paul Hebert), an absent and abusive alcoholic, her teacher (Liliane Princet), a severe and cruel woman who humiliates Mouchette in front of her class, and countless others who match their vindictive venom with stark callousness and condescension—painstakingly wring all joy and passion out of her life. Mouchette smiles once when she and a boy playfully trade whirlwind blows in a game of bumper cars. Afterward, she motions to approach the boy, but her father appears suddenly, grabs her, slaps her, and pushes her away in tears—not for the first or the last time.

Mouchette does make some discoveries in the cruel incidents that take place around her (critic Tony Rayns says she “learns first about sex, and then about death”), but they strike less as profound revelations and more as the natural dilation of her brutal circumstances. There’s something scientific about the way her misery progresses: her mother is sick, so she dies. The men around her hold women and children in furious contempt, minimize and dominate them, so she suffers from their escalating abuses. Though she may not be surprised by these patterns of inhumanity, she is never numb to them; even if she has tragically lost all innocence, stolen away by her elders, Bresson takes pains to show that she always retains her vulnerability.

Besson’s cinema is all gestures, signaling profound interior poetry within its characters through rigorously emphasized details. If there’s anything as cold as logic to Mouchette‘s world, it’s that gestures answer like gestures—violence provokes violence, kindness promotes kindness, weakness reveals weakness. “There’s solidarity in good and solidarity in evil,” Bresson says. Humanity contains the divine potentiality of both predatory evil and grace, and all of society’s vices and virtues have the power of self-reinforcement. Mouchette’s interactions with a poacher named Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert)—first amiable, as he shelters her from a rainstorm, then violent and catastrophic—indicate this with shocking clarity. When the townspeople see scratches on Mouchette’s chest, they call her a slut. One instance of malice is met with another, and it all falls on the shoulders of the weakest among us.

The film’s story, generally, is shaped around how Mouchette responds to these wrongs. Lacking all power and influence, she enacts her will through a series of minuscule gestures. She throws dirt at the girls who laugh at her in school, stamps her feet in mud on the way to church, mutters insults under her breath. She recreates the grand offenses she endures on her scale—harmless, powerless. The broken perform breaking of their own, as much as is within their capability.

But the characters of Mouchette all belong to the realm of the invisible—crushed, destitute, sick, all tortured by their different desperations. Defanged and numb to all else, small tantrums and innocent flirtations feel something like freedom for Mouchette, but for the adults, armed with their own kind of power, such outbursts become devastating, and their own misery becomes self-perpetuating. Mouchette shows how quickly and efficiently children can become locked in that trap of cyclical suffering. It’s a truth that they cannot be protected from forever. That’s the symbolic power of the film’s opening, in which Mouchette’s mother—her daughter’s last hope for shelter from the iniquities of the world—exits the frame and leaves the void in her wake.

Some have accused Mouchette of wallowing unnecessarily in the intensifying torture of a young girl, but Bresson sets up a world of action and consequence. Mouchette’s pain doesn’t materialize randomly. It isn’t delivered by the hands of God, but the hands of men, driven to their own wretched circumstances by those who once held power and influence over them. Bresson’s mission with Mouchette was to see how the weak respond to a destructive environment, and it reminds us how those environments are created in the first place. In Mouchette, Bresson’s cinema of gestures is all about reflections, how humanity mirrors itself. The young tragically relive the traumas of the old—if they can make it that far without disappearing.

* * *

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray upgrade of Mouchette arrives with the exact same slate of special features as the original DVD release in 2007. Under normal circumstances, the lack of fresh content would be a disappointment, but the original release already felt quite substantial, and to have its content in HD is an incredible boon for film lovers. Though it boasts only four on-disc supplements, each is a superlative complement to the film: critic Tony Rayns‘ scholarly commentary loaded with analysis and background detail, the film’s original trailer cut with style by Jean-Luc Godard, a half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary on the movie’s production by German filmmaker Theodor Kotulla called Au hasard Bresson, and a 1967 excerpt from the French TV show Cinéma recorded on set and featuring interviews with Bresson, Nortier, and Guilbert.

It’s rare to have access to behind-the-scenes footage from a foreign arthouse film from this era, let alone from two separate perspectives and contexts. Bresson is a legendarily idiosyncratic director and enigmatic personality, so to see his set in operation during one of his most illustrious periods is an enormous gift. With that in mind, despite its simplicity—a quality Bresson himself no doubt would appreciate—Au hasard Bresson is one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes documentaries I’ve ever seen, offering insights into the famed director’s unique artistic philosophy delivered by the man himself over extraordinary video of the production. The segment from Cinéma offers similar pleasures, with the added bonus of Nortier and Guilbert’s amusing insights.

Combined with Criterion’s essentially flawless video presentation sourced from a crisp 4K restoration, this release is bound to be recognized as one of the year’s essential upgrades.

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