Director: Robert Bresson
Writers: Robert Bresson
Based on a novel by: Georges Bernanos
Starring: Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Paul Hebert, Maria Cardinal
Running Time: 82 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Robert Bresson is a director whose work I’ve only slightly dabbled in (along with a lot of French directors to be honest). Prior to watching Mouchette, I’d only seen one of his films, Pickpocket, of which I can remember being impressed by the construction of some of its scenes, but can’t remember much more about it. I’d watched it late at night on a laptop so the situation wasn’t ideal, so I was very much looking forward to viewing Mouchette on a big(ish) screen in its newly remastered Blu-Ray format from Artifical Eye.
The film follows the titular character, a young girl played by Nadine Nortier (an untrained actress with no prior experience). Mouchette is living in poverty with her bed-ridden mother, abusive alcoholic father and baby brother. She works hard to look after her family, but gets little love in return. Everyone from her teacher, her fellow pupils, to the boys from the village all make life difficult for Mouchette. To be fair she isn’t particularly nice to them either, being a feisty young thing who purposefully muddies the floor at church and throws dirt at the other girls at school. She spends most of her time alone, wandering the local woods. It’s here where she gets into more serious trouble. She finds shelter from a storm and runs into Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a man caught up in a sort of love triangle with a local barmaid and her wannabe suitor Mathieu (Jean Vimenet). He believes he has killed the man and uses Mouchette to build an alibi to shocking results.
Bresson has quite a distinctive style (of course I’ve only seen two of his films, but I’ve done my research). He strips everything down to the bare essentials, using very little dialogue and no superfluous scenes or effects (camera, editing or otherwise). The performances are kept sparse too, with Bresson only allowing glances and motions which propel the story forward. This can initially come across as bland and wooden, but once you warm to the style you realise the genius of Bresson’s approach. Long before the Dogme movement, he was showing audiences that you don’t need extravagant dolly or crane shots, special effects, dollops of syrupy music or Stanislavski/Strasberg acting techniques to create deeply moving or thoughtful cinema.
Bresson uses deceptively simple, yet perfectly honed cinematic techniques to craft a powerful film without any extra fluff. An early scene where Mouchette rides the dodgems and has her eye on a young boy is full of the passion of young love simply through a handful of glances and fairly repetitive mid/wide shots. The final tragic sequence doesn’t milk the emotion of the situation either, it lets it play out in a couple of standard shots with no music or commentary to explain matters. The audience knows the situation and Mouchette has never received any warmth so why should the resolution to her story pry it in to make it easier for you.
It’s a hauntingly beautiful film. As a recurring song puts it, there is “no hope” for Mouchette, much like the rabbits and birds shot or ensnared by the film’s poachers. Many have taken her plight as a Christ allegory, but however you take it, the film is undeniably powerful, no matter how cold its approach might seem. A stark look at the pains of adolescence and poverty, it’s a masterclass in visual storytelling and the ‘less is more’ approach.
Mouchette is out now in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, released by Artificial Eye. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality is great other than some very minor scratches in one scene.
There’s only one special feature of note, a 31 minute German documentary called ‘Zum Beispiel Bresson’ which looks at the director’s work.