Monday, October 24, 2011

Film #64: Mouchette (1967)

Director: Robert Bresson

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Sad young teen girl, in sad family situation, in a sad town, gets even sadder due to uncontrollable forces.

Extended Summary (More complete plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning):

Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) is a 14-year old girl in a small town in France in the 1960s. She has virtually nothing going for her. She lives in poverty with a slowly dying invalid mother, a drunken thief of a father, and a helpless infant brother. Whether at school, at work, or removed from either, the only person who seems to value Mouchette at all is her mother, who is confined to her bed and is barely conscious most times. Otherwise, Mouchette is humiliated by teachers and classmates, abused and extorted by her father, and generally given little more than a passing glance by anyone else. Any brief moments of pleasure that she can steal for herself seems to be promptly quashed by some larger, oppressive force in her life.

At a local fair, Mouchette follows a young man she takes a fancy to. Soon after, she is slapped and derided by her domineering, scumbag father.

While sulking through all of this drudgery, Mouchette's life suddenly becomes more frightening and exciting. While hiding in the woods nearby her school to escape a heavy rain one evening, she is near a scuffle between the school's gamekeeper and a local poacher, Arsene (Jean-Claude Guilbert). The two men have romantic designs on the same woman in town, and the gamekeeper confronts Arsene. They tussle a bit and seem to settle their differences by sharing a few shots of liquor.

Some time shortly after, a drunken Arsene wanders through the woods and comes across Mouchette, still huddled under a tree. Arsene, thinking Mouchette may have seen something, brings her out of the woods and to a nearby shelter. Mouchette is aware that Arsene had fought with the gamekeeper, but neither she nor Arsene is sure of the exact outcome, which may have been a murder; Mouchette because she was not there and Arsene because he is too drunk to recall. To be safe, Arsene gives Mouchette an alibi that she can use for Arsene, in the event that the poacher has killed the gamekeeper. Mouchette seems to go along with it, out of either fear or some strange attraction to the nefarious rogue.

Arsene brings Mouchette to a safe-house in the town, where he plans to burn tons of firewood in order to corroborate his concocted alibi of being there all night. As he continues to grill Mouchette on their story, he goes into an epileptic fit. Mouchette comforts him briefly. When Arsene recovers, however, he becomes suspicious and will not let Mouchette leave. After a brief chase around the room, he captures her and forces himself upon her. She resists at first, but then relents to his sexual advance.

Mouchette is bullied by yet another force - the poacher Arsene.

Early the next morning, Mouchette returns home to find her mother in dire condition. After a brief exchange with her, her mother dies quietly, leaving Mouchette with only her father and infant brother.

The next day, as her father sits in mourning over his wife, Mouchette leaves the house on an errand for milk. On her way, she stops at a bakery, where the proprietress is kind at first, but turns insulting when a shaken Mouchette begins to act strangely. Mouchette then goes to the gamekeeper's house, where she unexpectedly finds the man alive and well. She is pulled inside and grilled for a bit by the man and a housemaid, the latter being more sympathetic. The two get the story out of Mouchette of what, exactly, happened with Arsene, with Mouchette embellishing slightly by calling Arsene her “lover”. Mouchette then leaves on her way back home. Along the way, she makes one last stop at an elderly townswoman's house. The woman rambles a bit, but tries to speak to Mouchette about her own life. She even gives the sullen young girl a dress with which to cover her deceased mother at the funeral. Mouchette merely hurls an insult at the old woman and runs out.

Instead of returning home, the thoroughly dejected Mouchette goes to the side of stream and looks out over the water. After some time pondering, she attempts to roll herself down the hill and into the water, only to be prevented by a collection of rushes on the bank. Once more, the girl goes back up the hill. Rolling down with more force of will, she send her body through the rushes and into the water, drowning herself.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any research):

Boy, these realist films don't play around.

Before watching Mouchette, I did the same thing almost anyone would do – I read the little summary on the DVD sleeve. Within that tight little sub-100 word reading, all of the following words and terms can be found: “...haunting...bleak, hopeless life...alcoholic father and terminally ill mother...grim surroundings...harsh...tragic tale...”

So yeah. I knew what I was in for.

With this foreknowledge, I was spared any nasty surprises, and I probably enjoyed the movie a little more than I would have. Still, it truly is a downer of a movie after which I can't help but ask “What's the point?”

Mouchette's visuals right up there with the best of the naturalist black and white films of Ingmar Bergman and others. While the director, Robert Bresson, used a few more cameras than Bergman, thus creating slightly more kinetic motion, he also used dialogue much more sparingly. Instead, he used wonderful visual storytelling a la the older silent filmmakers and contemporaries like Sergio Leone (though Leone told tales of a completely different ilk).

One of Mouchette's few pleasure. For several minutes, you can see every ounce of joy and attraction on her face as she rides the bumper cars around.

It's also not hard to see how different this film is compared to what was mainstream in the day. Yes, realism had already been around for a few decades, and had even achieved international recognition through films like the Apu Trilogy, Umberto D., Tokyo Story, and plenty of others. Of all of them, though, only the Apu Trilogy comes close to this sad tale of a lonely little girl who has nothing truly going for her, in terms of the weeping factor. And Mouchette goes even further down the road of depression, as the title character is left in the end with absolutely no hope, unlike the young Apu. Hence Mouchette's ultimate decision to end her own life.

Along the way, Mouchette's tale is told with heart-rending realism and subtlety. Often through mere facial expressions and body language, we can see every ounce of humiliation, anger, and even, short-live though it may be, joy that the girl goes through. One can realize that, while poverty is doubtlessly crushing for anyone, it might be even more so for a young person just reaching the age at which she is most emotional, quixotic, and malleable. The only moment of contact she has is a virtual rape. While it is understandable to see this scene with anger at the “she was asking for it” implication as Mouchette rapidly goes from resisting to embracing Arsene, I think it is incorrect. I took it to mean that Mouchette sees this horrific violation of herself as the only connection she can have with anyone. So much so that she even convinces herself that she is now Arsene's lover. Such is the result of utter poverty: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

The end is the icing on the cake, so to speak. I can't pretend to understand suicidal tendencies, but it's not hard to see how the title character's environment would lead to such a mental state. I suspect, though, that most viewers would, like I did, merely want to shake the girl and tell her to snap out of it. When she finally does herself in, I wasn't even sure what to feel. I would have to describe my mental state as the emotional equivalent of a shoulder shrug: “Oh, well. Saw that coming.”

Mouchette's first, failed, attempt at suicide. She gets it right on the next go-round.

As depressing as it all is, it wasn't as much of a chore to watch as I had feared. Mouchette's tale is told with the backdrop of a sexier story involving a jealousy between the gamekeeper and the rakish Arsene. With these more dynamic characters' confrontations adding a spice of energy to things, the movie avoids being an hour-and-twenty-minute drag.

If it isn't obvious from this review, I do not plan to watch this film again. As strong as the technical merits are, and as bold as it is for telling a harrowingly realistic tale, I can't see getting anything more out of repeated viewings. I would only recommend it to those who enjoy such melancholy fare, or are hard-core fans of very sound filmmaking.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (Done after some further research.)

There's actually not much to be found on this movie, at least not in my basic searches. However, watching 2 of the documentaries offered on the Criterion Collection DVD that I had offered a little more.

The most interesting tidbit is why director Robert Bresson chose to tell the sad tale of the adolescent Mouchette, something he had done several times in previous films. Apparently, Bresson was fascinated with the malleability and unpredictability of adolescence. I can see his point – in this film, Mouchette succumbs to the abuse and neglect she faces. She attempts to get past it, but ultimately cannot. If this had been a Hollywood film, the title character would almost certainly have triumphed over the negative elements in some way. It may be far more cliche, but it doesn't make it any less probable. One never knows how a young person with react to adversity. Mouchette looked at the darkest side of it.

“[Mouchette] can't be summarized. If it could, it'd be awful.” - Robert Bresson.

After writing my own summary for this movie, I was glad to hear Bresson say this. The story of Mouchette (which is based on a French novel) is exceedingly simple. And yet, no summary can convey the tragedy and the reality of the tale. The truth is, you never quite know how Mouchette will react to the different forces acting on her, and therein lies the little bit of intrigue that can pull a viewer through the movie. It worked for me, even if the film isn't terribly exciting.

On a final note, I have to say that it was nice to watch a few “behind-the-scenes” documentaries about Mouchette. If nothing else, seeing Nadine Nortier smiling and laughing helped to wash the taste of the melancholic fatalism out of my mouth.

That's a wrap. 64 shows down. 41 to go.

Coming Soon: Bonnie and Clyde (1967):

Whew! After the Thorazine pill that was Mouchette, a rootin', tootin' Hollywood shoot-'em-up is just what I need. I haven't watched this one in many a year, so I'm looking forward to it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.