Based on a novel from French author Georges Barnanos, Robert Bresson’s 1967 classic, Mouchette, follows the downward trajectory of it’s eponymous young heroine. Stark and unforgiving, in true Bressonian style Mouchette paints a bleak picture of humanity whilst offering moments of transcendence, grace, and redemption.
Young Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) inhabits a truly harrowing existence: nursing a dying mother whilst attempting to placate an aggressively unsympathetic father; little wonder she has trouble fitting in and relates negatively at school and in other social settings. Wandering aimlessly in the woods one afternoon she is caught in a rainstorm and attempts to take shelter until it passes but ends up entwined in a violently angry exchange between two men – a local hunter/poacher and the forest ranger. The evils which make up her life are then intensified and concentrated into several horrific acts over the next night and day and ultimately end in tragedy.
Sound a bit gloomy? It most certainly is, and yet, for those who have the eyes to see, the grace notes that Bresson leaves us with stand out all the more contrasted with Mouchette’s trial filled life. A scene where she spends some hard earned money on a bumper car ride at a travelling fair momentarily suspends the grind of the everyday allowing her to transcend her situation – if only for a few minutes – to be the child she should have the liberty to be. She even creates a connection with an unknown boy for the duration of the ride before her father, angry at the expense incurred with money he views as his own, signals her return to reality. Another scene depicts Mouchette singing to the hunter/poacher, Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a note perfect rendition of a song for which her school choir master had earlier castigated her publicly due to a recurring error in her melody line.
The work of a master at his prime, Mouchette falls just after the middle of Bresson’s oeuvre and includes all his hallmark stylistic touches: use of non-actors (‘models’ as he termed them), a sparse aesthetic quality married to a restrained and intentional use of background sound and music, and his distinctive way of framing shots – driven by some internal sense of the ‘meaning’ of a scene rather than the characters and events unfolding within it. Alongside Bresson’s previous feature, Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette is one of the most harrowing pieces of cinema that I have had the pleasure of viewing; and this without any of the emotion-directing fanfare of music, or ‘triumphs’ of acting that one might usually expect in a great film.
And this is the beauty of much of Bresson’s work: an emotional honesty that challenges the viewer to look for the moments of grace in our lives and particularly in often fraught human interaction. I would hope that on balance humanity is not so grim as Bresson often painted it – certainly as he painted it in Mouchette – but it would be naïve to think that life does not contain it’s fair (and often unfair) share of vice, cruelty and injustice. Firmly in the ‘arthouse’ camp, Mouchette is a film for those who are not intimidated by subtitled, non-formulaic cinema stripped bare of the usual ‘theatrical’ trappings we’d associate with a night at the movies. For those patient ones who can take the plunge the rewards will be as transcendent as any cinematic experience can be.
DVD Info + Special Features
This is one of the wonders of DVD: that we are now able to procure our own copies of films that have eluded the public eye for decades. With a total output of only 13 features over a 40 year period (1943-1983), Robert Bresson is critically regarded as one of the fathers of modern cinema. Yet, until recently, his films had been rarely seen outside of France due to their non-commercial nature and the limited number of prints ever made. I was lucky enough to catch a cinematic retrospective of his work almost 10 years ago at Auckland’s Lido cinema, and have been very pleasantly surprised to finally see region 4 releases of a number of his works being released recently. This transfer from the Umbrella world cinema collection is a decent one – if not as lovingly produced as those from the (region 1 only) Criterion collection. Picture and sound are presented as best as can be expected from a relatively low budget original from the late sixties. Bresson’s stunning black and white cinematography will be given its best outing on the biggest screen you can acquire for your viewing!
The only extra – other than the mandatory theatrical trailer – is a 30min documentary made by some German documentarians at the time of Mouchette being filmed. This piece fuses behind the scenes footage with some narrative overlays in which Bresson delves into his theory of filmmaking. It is quite a treat to hear this master of cinema talk about his methods and philosophy and then to see this play out as we witness him setting up and shooting various shots/scenes from the film in question.
» Region 4 PAL
» Anamorphic Widescreen 16:9
» Language: French (Mono – Dolby Digital)
» Subtitles: English
» Au Hasard Bresson: documentary about director, including behind the scenes footage (30min)
» Theatrical Trailer
Other Bresson titles currently available as Region 4 DVD release:
Umbrella world cinema collection
− Au hasard Balthazar
Accent Film Entertainment
− The trial of Joan of Arc
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Genre: French arthouse drama
Director: Robert Bresson (1967)
Actors: Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Maria Cardinal, Paul Hebert, & Jean Vimenet.