Near the end of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers (2003), the Italian provocateur shows some black and white footage of a teenage girl, around 14 years of age, moving up a hill, and rolling herself down. In pain, she repeats the same procedure one more time, falls into a river and drowns.
That scene gave me the chills, shook me to the bone. I remember thinking that I’ve never witnessed a stronger, more painful expression of suffering and so I decided to peruse the source material of this scene.
The film is “Mouchette, Robert Bresson’s 1967 masterpiece that marked the beginning of a series of films by the great French maverick distinguished for an excessively pessimistic and unkind worldview. This is when the overriding themes of redemption and grace of his first eight films began to recede.
In the long history of French cinema, Robert Bresson (1901-1999) remains one of the most inimitable and puzzling figures whose influence can be seen in the works of Bruno Dumont, Hsiao-hsien Hou, Lukas Moodysson and especially the Dardenne brothers. With 13 films in nearly 50 years, Bresson worked outside the realms of the mainstream, showing a complete disregard to commercialism and creating his own set of unique and radical methods that rivaled the innovations brought by the more successful (and influential) French New Wave.
His direction of actors is probably his most famous hallmark. Bresson employed amateurs only with no previous acting experience from 1951 until the end of his career. He regarded them as “models; vacant vehicles with blank faces showing little expressions and displaying the uttermost minimal of emotions, allowing the viewers to project on them whatever they felt and understood about their characters.
He was notorious for extremely long takes that exorcised any feelings from his actors and rejected any form of theatricality. He despised psychology, exhibiting no concern for providing concrete rationale behind his characters’ actions and, especially in his color films, eliminating motifs altogether.
His Catholic upbringing and Jansenist beliefs (a branch of Catholicism emphasizing original sin, human depravity and divine grace) shaped the majority of his films. Bresson’s outlook of the world is unmistakably distrustful. His flawed characters lead a life of anguish, constantly subjected to the callousness of others. In the first half of his career, he continuously underlined the possibility and healing power of redemption, most prominently in “A Man Escaped and “Pickpocket.
From “Mouchette until his last film “L’argent in 1983, his worldview grew dimmer as he ventured further into the hollowness and trepidations of modern world. Watching Bresson’s latter films, you can’t help but sense that God has finally given up and abandoned the world for good.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of “Mouchette is how the concept of grace is treated and customized to match Bresson’s increasing disregard of modern life. On the outset, the film appears to be a straightforward account of young, estranged girl with a dying mother, an abusive alcoholic father living in a world that doesn’t want or accept her. What Bresson brilliantly did is taking Georges Bernanos’s (who also wrote “Priest ) simple novel and transforming it into a piece of art that demands long contemplation.
Mouchette (played by Nadine Nortier in her sole onscreen performance) is a sullen, sordid unremarkable poor young girl with no friends and a baby brother to take care of. Mouchette is too invisible to be even bullied by her peers. Her unemployed father takes her earnings from her work at a coffee shop to spend it on his drinking habits.
She’s not entirely helpless though. She’s stubborn, discourteous and not afraid to tell people off. After school, she hides in a ditch and throws mud at the young girls while trying out their perfumes. Her rebelliousness proves to be quixotic with no avail.
In the course of the film, Mouchette experiences one moment of carefree joy when a kind stranger gives her some money to ride the bumper cars. In there, she exchanges glances with a young man, hovers around him and, in the only instance in the film, smiles. Her brief moment of happiness comes to swift end when her father spots her approaching the man and slaps her.
While taking shelter from the rain in the woods, she spots a poacher who may have accidentally killed the gamekeeper. After saving him from a seizure, the poacher pays the favor back by raping her. She returns home, seeking her mother for comfort, but finds herself instead consoling her mother on her death bed.
The most distressing aspect of Mouchette is her repressed innocence. Before she’s raped, for instance, she hides under a table instead of running for the door, as if she’s playing a game. When the poacher rapes her, she doesn’t resist much, and the scene closes with her arms wrapped around him. Mouchette is too lonely, too despondent that she accepts the poacher’s aggressiveness and decadency in exchange for intimacy, for a delusion of love.
All these observations I stated are quite subjective though. Bresson shows nothing, explains nothing. Even tears, which usually carry heavy emotional connotations, feel vague in here. Mouchette’s tears appear to be an organic part of her; deeply inbred in her soul that she doesn’t even notice, or care, when they start falling uncontrollably from her eyes.
In place of defined emotional augmentation, Bresson resorts to analogies, most memorably of a rabbit, mercilessly shot by an apathetic group of hunters.
This leads to the final scene of the movie. On first glance, Mouchette’s suicide seems like an evitable consequence of the hatred, rejection and cruelty she has experienced every day of her young life. On second thought, there’s seems to be more to it. Perhaps it’s her sense of shame, for her failure to create a different life for herself, for allowing herself to be sexually molested by the poacher and possibly even for loving him. One reality is certain though: She had more reasons to die than to live.
In an interview published in 1970, Bresson hinted that Mouchette’s suicide was, in fact, the form of grace he chose for her. “I confess that more and more suicide loses its sinfulness to me, he said. “Killing oneself can be courageous; not killing oneself, because you wish to lose nothing, even the worst that life has to offer, can also be courageous.
Although I don’t think I wholeheartedly agree with Bresson, I often pondered on his words, just as I often wondered what could’ve been of Mouchette had she refrained from killing herself. Perhaps that’s why I revisited the film several times, searching for clues while attempting to decipher every implication behind Mouchette’s gazes, the spaces she occupies and the few words she utters.
“Mouchette offers evidence of misery and cruelty, Bresson said. “She is found everywhere: wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations. Indeed, I’ve seen Mouchette everywhere, witnessed such cruelty time and time again.
On occasion, I tried to understand it, tried, in vain endeavors, to face it. Ultimately, I always crawled back to momentary distractions to escape this insanity. Bresson’s curse is that he couldn’t, and it’s in this extraordinary courage where his true legacy lies.