To believe press accounts and assorted reviews, little Mouchette, the sad, puffy-lipped girl from Robert Bresson’s film of the same name, is the most aggrieved human being in all of Christendom. Her plight, then, becomes the plight of us all; a parable for the world entire, filled as it is with injustice, boorishness, and incivility. As Joan of Arc before her, she is martyr incarnate, and the assault on innocence and decency makes fools and cowards of us all. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Instead, and with predictable tedium, Bresson has given us not the slings and arrows of a harrowing existence, but decidedly minor keys; a few unfortunate details that may not be one’s preferred (or ideal) method of living out existence, but hardly reasons in and of themselves to commit suicide. Oh, pity, have I tarnished the experience by revealing its secrets? If, by chance, you managed to endure an apocalyptically long 82 minutes to reach the ho-hum climax, you would not at all be shocked, as Bresson’s method is to elevate — by obscure, end-around, naively symbolic methods, of course — the simple and pure into the realm of the divine. Despite his obscene Catholicism, Bresson suggests that self-slaughter is acceptable, if not appealing, for Mouchette, if only because her life promises more of the same unimaginable pain. That he fails to offer a similar exit for his viewers is arguably his weakest attribute as a filmmaker.
“What will become of them without me?” Mouchette’s mother announces at the outset, certain of her eventual demise from breast cancer. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, after all, though in many ways, it’s the narcissist’s plea; an uncomprehending gaze into a future without you in it. Most will get along just nicely, of course, but for Mouchette, it’s a death sentence — not for any practical, identifiable reason, but simply because she’s being used by the director’s tortured vision. One might think that her mother’s slow, painful death leads to unending trouble, but the girl is seemingly unconcerned, as her grim façade remains fixed throughout. From what we see, Mouchette loses her mother — tough, but hardly unique — but outside of that, endures a little teasing, a village boy who drops his pants, a fierce storm or two, and a fiendish plot by a local man, one which I still don’t entirely understand. The man in question, Arsene, is a gamekeeper, and he has a fight with a rival named Mathieu, but I’ll be damned if any of their hostilities made a lick of sense. Nevertheless, Arsene forces Mouchette to create an alibi for him (he thinks he’s killed Mathieu, though it turns out later that he didn’t and, uh, whatever) and in the process, foams at the mouth, falls to the floor, and eventually pushes the girl down on a bed of straw. It appears to be rape, but she gladly embraces the lout once he’s climbed aboard, so at best it’s an awkward loss of her virginity. The scene fades to black with both fully clothed and mummylike in their stillness, so sex is merely assumed, when most likely he passed out from fatigue, and she waited until he rolled over and went to sleep.
Again, this alleged scene of exploitation is about as bad as things get for poor Mouchette, which hardly makes her a candidate for sainthood. If bad, drunken sex were the only criteria for taking on the burdens of the world, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine someone who doesn’t qualify. Sure, her father is an alcoholic and there’s a crying baby in the house, but at no point is she beaten, tortured, whipped, or dropped from a rooftop. She’s slapped ever so slightly after semiconsciously flirting with a man while riding in the bumper cars, but that’s simply being the child of a father who wants no one else to fuck you but him. Pretty standard. Her shoes are constantly getting muddy, and she does appear to have just the one pair, but I’m certain not even Bresson would classify such deprivation as backbreaking. Ah, but she is humiliated in front of her class after she refuses to sing, but her punishment is just, not a further example of her burdened soul. There’s a reason she returns to the same spot day after day to throw mud at her classmates, but from the looks of it, it is nothing more than a physically and socially inferior brat acting out against more attractive kids, who show off their knickers, hang around with boys, and have enough money to afford bicycles. Still, Mouchette is constantly crying, so something must be driving her to despair.
What drives the girl to her death, however, is the rabbit hunt she witnesses from the bushes. After two hunters blast away a bunny at her feet, she seems pushed beyond even her Job-like capacity to endure, and walks to a hillside, where she rolls down an embankment three times before finally hitting her mark. Though nary a ripple seems to pass along the water, the shot is held for an eternity, I’m guessing to drive home the point that here passed a girl of unimaginable import; a bright light in an ever-darkening world. Or perhaps, now gone, it’s as if she never existed, which might be the closest the religious Bresson has ever come to saying that nothing sweeter awaits us. And yet, listening to the scholar’s commentary that accompanied the movie, I was forced to hear yet again the idea that death, at least for Mouchette, was infinitely preferable to the nasty, brutish cards she had the misfortune of having been dealt. No evidence, of course, simply an interpretation based on a director’s reputation, which apparently means that at this stage in his career, he was beyond having to explain himself with actual plot points and character motivations. The commentary suggested that because Mouchette was “fulfilled” (death of mother, first sexual encounter), she could take leave of the world, having accomplished or experienced everything possible in her limited existence. Really? That’s all she could look forward to? This is France, my good man, not the Sudan; surely there’s a boyfriend, or a job, or perhaps a board game or two down the line? Not a chance. Bresson’s all about the abdication of free will and choice; murderous determinism governs his every move. Mouchette must die, because it is so very French for her to do so. Tres, tres, pessimiste.
Or is it? When faced with Bresson, I am, almost against my will, reduced to a meat-and-potatoes-loving, narrative-at-all-costs ugly American; the sort who requires some semblance of entertainment value in my cinematic diet. Abstract, bizarre, challenging, and even frustrating — all I can handle — but I draw the line at protracted and desert-dry. Bresson simply refuses to engage the viewer on any level save the metaphorical, dispensing with any and all appeals to the intellect or the emotional center of the human experience. What’s more, he sets up punishing, artificially didactic scenarios that reek of a rigged game. Through “noble minimalism,” a concept much abused in Bresson’s world, he seems to suggest that banality is often punctuated by violence and loss (a belief I can endorse, by the way), but fails to abide by the rules he himself has established, as in the case of Mouchette’s tragedies (which are, empirically at least, strikingly normal). He sees in her what he does not (or cannot) prove. If Bresson had the chops to argue in favor of suicide for even the nominally bothered (by his terms), I might meet him in the middle. But when the words, “Hope! Hope is dead!” come from the mouths of the decidedly average, it seems hyperbolic and strange, rather than well-earned — much like every prior effort to affix depth and understanding to this most elliptical of Frenchmen.