50 Years Ago This Week – Robert Bresson’s Mouchette

Mid Century Cinema favorite and enigmatic Art House Rock Star Robert Bresson’s eighth feature film, Mouchette, had its Paris premiere fifty years ago this week. We have always had a special fondness for Mouchette. Generally averse to rankings, we nevertheless have no trouble identifying this as our third favorite Bresson, behind, in no particular order, Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped.  (Capsule summaries of all of Bresson’s films can be found here.  And before Paul Schrader pens an angry note to our hard working staff, we should mention that Schrader considers Pickpocket to be Bresson’s best work; indeed he ranks Pickpocket as the fourth greatest film ever made in his brilliant, must-read essay on the impossibility of establishing a film canon.)

Based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (as was Diary of a Country Priest—Bernanos also wrote Under the Sun of Satan, which was the source material for the Maurice Pialat film that won the Palme d'Or at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival), Mouchette is nevertheless instantly and distinctly recognizable as a Bresson film, with its observational style, elliptical qualities, silent passages, and minimalist performances, virtually trademarked, designed to strip away any recognizable convention of acting.  (To help achieve this last element Bresson typically hired non-professional actors, and the principal players in Mouchette are almost all making their first appearances on film.)  Nor did the director feel duty-bound to follow the source material, inventing some scenes and rearranging others.  “The fidelity of a film to a book is something which [cinema], the way I understand it, doesn’t necessarily profit,” Bresson explained in an interview that coincided with the movie’s premiere. “That doesn’t contradict my admiration for Bernanos, my love for Mouchette, and my commitment not to undertake anything I wouldn’t be able to subject to the utmost scrutiny.”

Mouchette is not, to put it mildly, a feel-good film. Rather, it tells the melancholy story of a disconsolate provincial adolescent, caring for her dying mother and infant brother, tormented in school, fending for herself (not always successfully) against dangers large and small from alcohol-drenched townsfolk and isolated country eccentrics. Despite its eventful narrative, however, the strength of the film lies in the way it implicitly and cumulatively reveals that it is ultimately about two powerful absences: the foreclosed possibilities of Mouchette’s bleak future, and the silence of an indifferent god.

This would all be quite a bummer (and let’s not pretend that such feelings don’t linger beyond the closing credits), if not for Bresson’s awe-inspiring cinematic exposition of this tale. In Mouchette, every shot counts—and most of them impress.  (And not just every shot, but every sound, which, according to Bresson was an “important and fairly precise,” element of the filmmaking, down to his use of “ten different kinds of wind,” during the storm sequence.) Not a happy story, certainly, but a singular, thrilling, markedly identifiable statement by an accomplished master.  

Mother

Mother is not Doing Well

 

School

School, a House of Dickensian Horrors

 

A moment of pleasure

A Moment of Pleasure

 

But Just a Moment

But Just a Moment

 

Self Defesne

On Her Own

 

The Silence

The Silence