Mouchette: The Muses never talk to each other, but sometimes they dance.
“For me the order and position of characters and the framing of the shot are the essence of cinema. They’re much more important than simple dramatic action which is only revealed through the form the shot takes. In cinema what matters is the form, and this must be given priority.” Robert Bresson
And so Mouchette begins with a terminally ill mother sitting in a chair lamenting the fate of her children after she dies. She stands and walks away and we are faced with the empty chair, and the terrible Job-like resignation that for some on this earth life is not fair. This is a film of absences. The missing mother, the missing father and older brother as they go about smuggling alcohol, the missing childhood, Arsene’s epileptic fits he calls ‘blackouts’, the missing truths of all the stories, and ultimately the missing love. Mouchette is a girl-child and therefore she receives a special sort of vilification. She is only of value to her dying mother when she can stop the baby crying, and she is of no value to her father and older brother who only notice her when she has not completed a requisite task.
Like all good Catholics, Bresson likes to torture young girls. They are the perfect example of a presumed innocence so profound they carry the burden of purity for adults male and female. Like all purity, the fascination lies in the temptation to violate it, either through the burden of obligation and duty beyond the childs years or the sexual violation. Ultimately, purity equals abjection. Our fascination comes from a certain sort of horror with it. A knowledge that soon she will bleed, become woman and therefore the most unpure of all creatures. Purity is a thing to sacrifice to the gods.
Mouchette is on the very tipping point of sexuality. She is Nabokov’s nymphette and Henry James’ child witness. She sees the girls her age turn themselves upside down so that their white knickers are revealed, covering a promise of a sensual future. A young boy exposes himself to Mouchette (presumably because she is poor and unloveable and therefore powerless to do anything about it) and Mouchette simply takes it in her stride. She flirts with a young man at a carnival, on the dodgems as, like half-child/half-adult creatures, her and a boy deliberately bump into each other to get one another’s attention. These are the complex twists in the tales of adolescence. This is all a normal healthy part of growing into the body.
But nothing is pure for Mouchette and she is the little bird, little rabbit sacrificed to be made a meal of. Like many adolescents, her budding experience of sexuality will be as interrupted for her as any of her experiences of being human. Mouchette suffers. She is born for suffering. Everyone in Mouchettes life despises her, and as the film progresses, more and more people band together to take advantage of her. This is Bresson’s primary message, that victims are ugly creatures, and there is solidarity in good and there is solidarity in evil. In this film he focusses on the solidarity in evil. There is an evil complicity against Mouchette because she has been chosen to prove a point first the author and then the film maker wanted to make.
Bresson wants us to see that the evil in people can kill us. We can die from solidarity against us. This is evidenced through the film via the feelings he creates in us around Mouchette as well as in the feelings he creates in us around the people who hurt Mouchette. Bresson is able to twist things ever so slightly, so that we have our own experience of abection toward Mouchette. She is mean sometimes. She is unattractive (Bresson can’t quite maker her as physically unattractive as the novel, but he tries his best. he is a Libran after all… beauty is important.) and she is superfluous. Once her Mother dies, what use is she? She responds sexually to her own rape calling her own integrity into question. She tries to trade her loyalty and devotion for companionship, even after her rapist betrays her. Mouchette does many things making herself unattractive.
Add to this, the efforts Bresson uses to convey the power of solidarity. The school children leave Mouchette alone, but she hides and throws mud at them, spoiling their games. They hate her, but we understand why. Eventually the entire town will conspire together against Mouchette, re telling the story of her in a way that allows for their evil and using their solidarity to hide their behaviours from themselves. Even the kindly old lady at the end (who interestingly expresses suspicion for Christianity) becomes Mouchettes enemy when her warmth toward Mouchette does not gain her immediate access to healing the troubled girl. Bresson wants us to see that solidarity in evil is as powerful as solidarity in good. NO matter now Mouchette behaves, she didn’t stand a chance.
Bresson states in the documentary of the making of Mouchette, that he wanted t convey this transformation. This transformation that moves a person from acting evil on their own to becoming a tribe, equally compliant in the evil being perpetrated on another. he says the key to this is in the way the different elements of each shot speak to each other. he uses techniques like removing the heads of groups of people, filming them from their backs. Techniques that alienate the deeper person to us and show them moving away from their own humanity.
The film starts with a hunter trapping a small bird. He watches the bird suffer for a while, and eventually the bird is set free and able to fly away. It is set free through a brief moment of compassion by another human being. The film closes with a group of hunters who chase a rabbit. They all shoot at the rabbit, and even when it is wounded, continue until it is dead. Much has been made of Mouchette showing horror as she witness the death of the rabbit. the suggestion is that Mouchette would be very familiar with this style of hunting and it makes no sense that she gets offended. I think Mouchettes shock at the end of the film is about the hunters working as a team to bring down a creature so small and weak that it can’t possibly defend itself. Her shock is at the hunters and their solidarity. Mouchette has a moment where she knows, the town has rallied against her, and there is no escape for her via any individual reaching in and finding their humanity. Bressons message here is that redemption isn’t achieved after we are dead. It is achieved in our life time and Mouchette is our opportunity to redeem ourselves.
Bresson achieves the effect of transformation by using from to transform form, thus changing the viewing experience. For example, the hunting scene at the end of Mouchette where the rabbit is killed is accompanied by sacred music by Monteverdi. By using spiritual music, Bresson is able to transform the experience of hunting for food, into a moment of sacrifice, which makes us think of Mouchette in a different way. Bresson states that it is a mistake to use music to enhance and existing mood of a scene. It should be used to transform and therefore deepen the scene. he says: “I wanted to establish a connection between the prey and Mouchette. With sacred music playing in the hunting scene, you’ll see an extraordinary transformation of wild animals through Monteverdi’s music.”
For Bresson, film must be art. It isn’t always art, but for him it must be art. Art has the duty of transformation. Bresson used to be a painter and he makes many comparisons between the art of paint and the art of film. He quotes Degas in the documentary: “The muses never talk to each other, but sometimes they dance.” Then he adds, “even though I am a painter, I am against making films into paintings.”
Mouchette is a film that offers us transformation, and it is most definitely art. Be sure not to miss it.
If you liked this post, check out my review of pickpocket here. I think you will enjoy that analysis.
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Below is a small article. Bergman on Bresson.
Ingmar Bergman on Mouchette
The following is an excerpt from Conversation with Bergman, a long interview with Ingmar Bergman conducted by John Simon, and published in John Simon’s book Ingmar Bergman Directs,Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972, ISBN 0-15-644360-0. The interview/conversation is found on pages 11–40, the below fragment is located on pages 27–28.
JOHN SIMON: What about Bresson? How do you feel about him?
INGMAR BERGMAN: Oh, Mouchette! I loved it, I loved it! But Balthazar was so boring, I slept through it.
I liked Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and A Man Escaped, but I would say The Diary of a Country Priest is the best one.
I have seen it four or five times and could see it again… and Mouchette… really…
That film doesn’t do anything for me.
No? You see, now I’ll tell you something about Mouchette. It starts with a friend who sees the girl sitting and crying, and Mouchette says to the camera, how shall people go on living without me, that’s all. Then you see the main titles. The whole picture is about that. She’s a saint and she takes everything upon herself, inside her, everything that happens around her. That makes such an enormous difference that such people live among us. I don’t believe in another life, but I do think that some people are more holy than others and make life a little bit easier to endure, more bearable. And she is one, a very, very simple one, and when she has assumed the difficulties of other human beings, she drowns herself in a stream. That is my feeling, but thisBalthazar, I didn’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring.
But, you could almost say the same thing about the donkey, that when the donkey has taken on other people’s suffering…
A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.
Do you like animals in general?
No, not very much. I have a completely natural aversion for them.