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Mouchette is one of Robert Bresson`s most celebrated films. And being one who has never had the experience of viewing any of his pictures, I cannot say whether it is indeed his best, of course, but Mouchette does have all of the attributes, or detriments, depending on who you are, of a Bresson movie. His films are known to be very grim, austere, and very obscure, and Mouchette has all of these elements.

Mouchette is a fourteen-year-old girl, who lives in a small rural French town, and who has a very hard life. She appears to be completely alienated from everyone and everything around her. She has no friends, and indeed, nobody in her school will even speak to her. She lives in a home where her mother is terminally ill and her worthless father can work only as a bootlegger to the local bar. Her psyche is so assaulted that she cannot even bear to look others in the eye, and doesn't even bother dressing as neatly as the other girls in the school, which makes her stick out like a sore thumb.

While Mouchette is the primary focus of the storyline, other characters who seem to be unrelated to the main character at first are presented with their own issues. Two local hunters have a rivalry over the female bartender at the local bar, and much of the fighting is expressed by sabotaging each other's traps. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands come together when the younger hunter encounters Mouchette, during a harsh rainstorm, in the middle of the woods, and proceeds to manipulate her in increasingly harsh ways. After this, Mouchette enters into a downward spiral which can only end in tragedy.

Those last two paragraphs basically sum up what happens in this film. Unlike, say, any current picture, Mouchette does not have a lot of clutter in terms of plot. The script is stripped bare of any useless subplots, any comic relief, any background information, or even explicit motivation for any of the character's actions. Bresson does not tell us what is going on (there is very little dialogue in the film, so the characters don't tell us either). We are only witness to visual facts, and we must often use our imagination to guess at the full implications of what occurs. One of the best examples of Bresson`s strategy is contained in a carnival scene, in which Mouchette finds herself in a bumper car ride. She meets up with a young man, a few years older than she, we gather, and for the next few minutes, the two bump and crash into each other, and seem entertained by it all. After the ride, the two shyly wander about, unsure of the next move. Suddenly, her father shows up, is appalled, and slaps her in the face. Not a single word of dialogue is spoken in this long sequence, yet all of the little things that occur here are enough for many threads of discussion. Certainly, what I got out of this sequence is that Mouchette is very touched by this boy's attention, and yet people like her father ram into her that such feelings are horrible, and punishable. Her utter passiveness suggests that this is not the first time she has played out this experience, and that she has never gone beyond it.

Bresson also has a thing about shot composition which may turn some people off. There are a lot of shots, mainly of faces, which seem to be held for a few beats too long, almost as if Bresson wants us to really study the expressions on the actor's faces. And many of the performers seem to have a very rigid way of moving; there isn't exactly a lot of pep in their bodies. In some ways, these elements can be seen as a bit affected.

Bresson`s detachment unavoidably creates a situation where little, if any, emotion actually exists in the confines of the movie. There is no attempt to pull any emotion, even sad and anguished ones, out of the viewer; there is no way that this film can be called manipulative. Of course, if you are an emotional person, and do feel anguish at horrid sights, you will still feel something by watching Mouchette`s complete alienation. For me, I felt more numb than anything else, since there is so much pain and hopelessness, yet no attempt to show any happiness. And I actually was more startled at Mouchette`s attacks on others than those others' attacks on her. Twice, we see Mouchette hide in the ditch to throw lumps of clay at her schoolmates; she is angry and alienated enough to feel the need to hurt others just as they hurt her.

The story is, ultimately, powerful in its effort to show unadorned realism. An atmosphere of loneliness and hopelessness, especially for women, prevails. The women in this movie are treated like property, or prey. The hunters' desire for the woman is really a desire to possess this woman, just as they like to possess the game they hunt for. The younger hunter treats Mouchette appallingly, and yet she is unable to defend herself, since her culture as a whole is oppressive. Bresson gives us a powerful symbolic image of this in what is fairly brutal images of innocent animals caught in their traps (this must have been made in the days before the ethical animal treatment people got involved in the movies!). And the town itself is not a town which anyone would want to move in, after witnessing its citizens. My friend, in one of her more nasty moments, would claim that this movie is really about the people here in good old Prince Edward Island: a bunch of inbred drunks. Maybe she can direct the Canadian remake.

Mouchette, now that I have had more time to think about, is really a very impressive and complicated movie. Bresson makes many demands from the audience, demands which most may not want to perform. But Bresson is the real deal; a film-maker with the guts to make a film his way, and with no desire to perform to anyone's expectations except his own.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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