In a film as inexorable and irrevocable as this, it is appropriate that Bresson's masterpiece should begin with an elaborate rite. The film actually opens with the heroine stating her anguish calmly to the camera, and the bizarrely Baroqued-up strains of Monteverdi. But the action begins in a green space of remarkable beauty, adjacent to the 'civilisation' of the village. It is an overgrown, profusely sparse space, in which one man sets up a wire trap, watched by another. A pigeon is caught in the trap, and we watch his terrified, bewildered struggle for agonised moments. The second man follows the bird, we assume to finish him off, and sets him free. He looks at the second man, who scarpers.
These two men are a poacher and a gamekeeper, but Bresson doesn't tell us until after this sequence. Although their roles may be obvious, there is a ritual solemnity about the action, characters moving and behaving to seemingly pre-ordained rules, in an environment that is supposed to be realistic (no music; natural sounds etc.) but seems unworldly, stripped bare. The sequence is loaded with symbolic detail, with a cruel foretelling of the plot to come that takes on the power of Greek myth, an intriguing starting point for the very Catholic Bresson's film.
Although Bresson's austere films are defended by his admirers as being full of suppressed passion, it's hard to fully engage with them. They are fragmentary (e.g. in the way he films parts of the body that seem to deconstruct it, rather than its familiar wholeness; the way the plots are constructed not by conventional flow, but the build up of episodes),and yet his films are full of contradictory connections, patterns, rhythms whether real or imaginary that, perhaps (I'm no theologian) approximate the underlying Catholic impact.
The reason MOUCHETTE is his most appealing film is that it is in many ways more conventional than most. It's the story of an adolescent girl living in a grim, parched provencal village, unloved by her parents, mocked by her schoolmates, brutally beaten by her teachers. She clumps around in heavy shoes that make her look disabled, and there is unexpected comedy when, every day after school, she hides behind a hedge and hurls, with unerring accuracy, mud at the popular girls, with their perfumes and motorbike-owning boyfriends. Parallel to this story is that of the gamekeeper and the poacher, both fighting over the same woman.
The film initially consists of revelatory vignettes, with little apparent plot point, revealing the spiritual void of provincial France, with its medieval rituals and codes, hatreds, unloving Churches, pinched villagers, heavy parched stones. Mouchette's mother is dying, her father and brother involved in smuggling. One connecting pattern in the film, foreshadowing L'ARGENT, is that of money, a blasphemous matrix that only alienates its practitioners. There are some brief snatches of relief, such as Mouchette playing bumping cars at a fairground, but an incipient reaching for companionship is harshly beaten away by her father.
This loveless, sterile, man-made community is seemingly contrasted with the neighbouring countryside. Mouchette gets lost one night in the forest, and the thundering cyclone seems to unleash an almost Romantic expressivity, revealing Mouchette's feelings that are usually curtailed in the social realm (the fact that this may by pathetic sympathy and subjective is shown in two subsequent denials of the cyclone's power). Her seeming freedom is linked to losing a burdenous shoe.
But 'civilisation' is never far away, and the medieval fued of honour is pushed to this natural realm. Bresson cuts the outcome of the two men's drunken meeting, and the characters' own ignorance leads to misinterpretation and misinformation that crucially decide Mouchette's fate. The short, elliptical style now gives way to two extended, gendered set-pieces, one with Arsene the poacher and possible murderer, one with her dying mother. This two-fold division presumably has religious or Platonic significance, the rest of us can watch the dreadful plight of a young girl who so wants to belong that she is prepared to abet a killer, get raped and see her mother die in the space of a couple of hours. Predictably, the attempt of this outsider to belong results in her being cast out as a slut, leaving seemingly only one heartbreaking option open to her.
Mouchette is a classic movie outsider, but she is not subversive. Her presence is marginalised even in her own film - although she serves to expose the fundamental evil and disruption underlying so-called 'tight' communities. The treatments of rape and the links of the female with death, not fertility, seem troubling - Bresson's attack on a 'patriarchal' society seems to bemoan the arrogant usurping of the real Patriarch.
This is how JEAN DE FLORETTE should have been filmed - shorn of heritage accoutrements, provincial France is shown to be an unlovely hell. With all the discussion of Bresson's philosophical power, it shouldn't be forgotten that he has compelling narrative gifts - and even uses the notion of story as the crucial plot motor - Mouchette acts on the erroneous story she's told by Arsene, on the creation of a world through mere words - and her lack of either narrative control or critical power results in her downfall.
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Mouchette's a young girl living in the country. Her mother's dying and her father doesn't take care of her. Mouchette remains silent in the face of the humiliations she undergoes. One night, she meets Arsene, the village poacher, who thinks he's just killed the local policeman. He tries to use Mouchette to build an alibi.
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