Jul 4, 2018

Mouchette




Out of all my ex-girlfriends, I can sincerely say that I only regard one as being a genuinely decent and selfless human being, which becomes all the more notable when one considers that she suffered a horribly abusive childhood and could have easily become a horrendous piece of shit like some many other people from similar backgrounds. Luckily for my ex, she is a distinctly beautiful babe with a perfect hourglass shape, more than ample derriere, and nice shapely tits, though she once had extremely poor self-esteem due to abusive family members, especially her exceedingly jealous mother, and thus could not even bask in her own singularly statuesque body.  In fact, it was only until I routinely reminded her for a couple years that she actually became fully aware of her positively prepossessing pulchritude, though she never let it go to her head and instead developed an appreciation for feminine beauty in general. For those that do not know her and saw her on the street, this might seem completely inexplicable, especially considering so many modern American women have such bloated senses of self-worth, but such a miserable childhood involving alcoholic parents, including a violent bipolar mother, can certainly warp one’s self-esteem, or so I sadly discovered during my relationship with her. While it has been nearly a decade since this specific ex-girlfriend and I broke up, I was recently reminded of her after watching the pastoral tragedy Mouchette (1967)—a film that, like the director's previous masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest (1951), was based on a novel of the same name by French Roman Catholic monarchist Georges Bernanos—directed by French master auteur Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, L'argent), who has indubitably become one of my favorite filmmakers in recent years.

 Indeed, the film, which was like virtual metaphysical Déjà vu for me, feels like a biographical depiction of my ex as a teenager, albeit set in 1960s bumfuck frogland, as the female lead Nadine Nortier not only resembles my ex in terms of appearance, gestures, and pantomimes, but her experiences and family situation is also eerily similar.  Also like the heroine of Mouchette, my ex could be rather rude and crude (indeed, on top of being prone to mooning people for sport and thus exposing her arguable best physical attribute for free, she was not beneath mocking uppity negress aggressors to their faces with monkey sounds and racial slurs).  While I certainly will not attempt to argue what is the superior film, I cannot help but admit that my emotional connection to Nortier’s character was much stronger and more personal than that of Anne Wiazemsky’s character in Bresson's previous (and somewhat similarly themed) masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar (1966). An unrivaled master of what he himself called the ‘cinematograph,’ Bresson demonstrates a sharp, intuitive, and uniquely unsentimental humanistic respect and empathy for an ultimately quite mean, vulgar, and unkempt teenager girl that no one seems to love or care for aside from her dying mother. Indeed, the eponymous lead is more than a little bit rough around the edges and her pain, misery, and heartbreaking dejection can be clearly read across her youthful yet ultimately terminally tragic face. A filmmaker that best described his own filmmaking style when he declared, “I limit myself to what is indispensable,” it should be no surprise that Bresson constructed a film where pretty much every single frame of film and single sound is imperative, as if he somehow was able to capture every crucial moment in the last couple days of a girl that ultimately decided to choose death over life on a virtual whim. In that sense, Mouchette might be best described as an ‘emotional autopsy’ were it not so much more as one of the great works of truly transcendental cinema. 



Although it probably makes me sound like a proper scumbag, the reason I prefer the titular teen of Mouchette to the almost insufferably cutesy chick of Au hasard Balthazar is that I found the passivity of the latter when it came to her incessant victimhood to be somewhat infuriating, even if she was a being of angelic purity. Indeed, not unlike my ex-girlfriend, Mouchette decides to take revenge against the sick and pathetic alcohol-fueled society that uses and abuses her, though most of her actions are indubitably misguided, at least on a superficial level. In fact, the heroine oftentimes does repugnant and even downright sadistic things yet the viewer is able to easily sympathize with her due to Bresson’s brilliance as a filmmaker that preferred the natural organic gestures and expressions of a non-actor (or what he called ‘human models’) to the counterfeit melodramatics, histrionics, and plastic posturing of many professional actors, or as he once wrote, “An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak its language.” Clearly influenced by Bresson, Louis Malle—a filmmaker that usually worked with popular actors, including Hollywood stars—followed the lesson of Mouchette by getting a real rural lumpenprole teen to portray the lead in his WWII era Vichy masterpiece Lacombe, Lucien (1974). As both films demonstrate, Bresson was certainly right when he wrote, “Respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is,” as the films derive their potency and intrigue through the authenticity of gesture and emotion as expressed by their non-actor leads.  Although it is accepted among many film critics, including Charles Barr and Joseph Cunneen, that Mouchette is arguably Bresson’s most accessible film, to me it was so much more as it felt like a beauteously bittersweet deluge of Déjà vu due to the female lead’s authenticity of facial expressions and gestures, as if I was transported to some past alternate reality where my ex-girlfriend was a 1960s Provençal farm girl that opted to kill herself instead of going on with life. While Bresson made a number of films containing the timeless theme of suicide and thus can be regarded as the unequivocal maestro of self-slaughter cinema, there is really no other cinematic work in film history where the unpardonable sin seems so nonchalantly beauteous and metaphysically sound, though I initially found myself having a hard time detailing specifically why aside from acknowledging its particularly preternatural lack of premeditation. In that regard, the film’s lead also reminds me of my ex (who, thankfully, never offed herself). 



Undoubtedly, Mouchette clearly demonstrates that Jean-Luc Godard was right when he stated on the frog TV doc Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson in regard to his cinematic hero, “If I wanted to characterize Bresson, I said once in an interview that to me he's a Grand Inquisitor, someone who, despite the risk or violence involved, penetrates to the very depths of a human being.” Of course, very few people would openly admit that they want to endure head-on the sort of soul-crashing experience that leads a cute teenager girl killing herself in the end. For example, in his entry on Bresson in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980), film scholar and cineaste Richard Roud makes the somewhat dubious complaint, “Indeed, there is something almost sadistic in the way in which the girl is treated, not only by the other characters in the film but by Bresson as well. She is a victim, and he is unable to make anything more of her than that.” Aside from his seeming incapacity to discern between sadism and deep empathy, Roud seems to be ignoring that the titular teen expresses free will, albeit in an oftentimes miserably misguided fashion that involves pelting classmates with mud and ultimately committing suicide. While one might be tempted to point to the annoyingly over referenced Nietzsche quote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you,” in regard to the tragic nature of the character, she expresses slight glimmers of hope just before destroying herself in a playful gesture of self-slaughter that is akin to a silly game. Like me with my ex, the viewer learns to love the fi'ms heroine because of her coarseness, vulgarity, tactlessness, and gross naivety when it comes to confronting her life, thereupon making her suicide all the more heartbreaking yet somehow fitting and even liberating. 


 At the very beginning of the film, the viewer is introduced to a somber middle-aged woman (portrayed by French novelist Marie Cardinal) in a church that declares, “What will become of them without me? I can feel it in my breast.” The woman in question is the titular protagonist's mother and she is terminally ill and thus naturally fears for the future of his poor dysfunctional family. Although barely a teenager, Mouchette has already had to take her dying bedridden mother’s place at home and thus must care for her baby brother and clean and cook for her entire family, which also includes her ungrateful deadbeat alcoholic bootlegger father (Paul Hebert) and similarly scummy and swarthy brother. On top of her home life being fairly draining, virtually every other aspect of Mouchette's life is miserable and degrading, especially at school where she has nil friends and is tormented by her fiercely frigid teacher. Aside from her dying mother, no one really seems to care about Mouchette, especially not her physically and emotionally abusive father. In short, the little lady heroine lives a life of perpetual misery, torment, and abuse as a child that rarely gets to experience the joys of being a child. In fact, the only time that Mouchette has any sort of reprieve from the sick sad joke that is her life is when she is able to briefly enjoy a bumper car ride at a local fair after a somewhat mysterious young mother randomly gives her a token for said ride. Being ill-equipped to socialize, especially with members of the opposite sex, Mouchette uses crashing her bumper car into that of a young boy’s car as a strangely touching means of flirting. Rather unfortunately, the heroine musters up courage and makes an attempt to talk to the boy after the ride, but her deadbeat dipsomaniac dad slaps her in the face just as she invitingly smiles at the lad, who is wearing bourgeois and is probably a sort of dream boy for the heroine. From there, everything goes downhill for the poor little dame. 


 In Mouchette’s pathetic gin-fueled village, there is a sort of sexual rivalry between a swarthy epileptic poacher named Arsène (Jean-Claude Gilbert of Bresson's previous film Au hasard Balthazar) and a somewhat older gamekeeper named Mathieu (Jean Vimenet) because the two are both in love with a somewhat bitchy young barmaid with a blonde dyke cut named Louisa (Marine Trichet). While Arsène is a middle-aged loner that somewhat resembles Mouchette’s father in terms of his decidedly dirty deadbeat appearance and overall sleazy character, Mathieu is a respected married man (who just happens to be in love with a woman that is clearly not his wife). One day after wandering into the woods after school and getting lost in a rainstorm that she confuses for a ‘cyclone,’ Mouchette encounters Arsène during a less than auspicious moment after he wrongly assumes that he has killed his rival Mathieu during a drunk brawl. Rather disturbingly, although Mouchette, whole clearly senses a kindred spirit as a fellow loner that is hated by local, treats the pathetic poacher with inordinate affection, comforts and sings to him when he suffers a rather unnerving seizure, and proudly promises to provide him with an alibi for his ostensible murder of Mathieu, Arsène decides to pay her back by getting her drunk and raping her. While Mouchette initially ruthlessly fights Arsène off when he is attempting to rape her, she eventually embraces her involuntary deflowering by warmly wrapping her arms around him once he penetrates her. Not surprisingly, she later proudly states to Mathieu’s wife, “Mr. Arsène’s my lover. Ask him. He’ll tell you,” thereupon underscoring her depressingly misguided view of romance and affection and overall social retardation.  Of course, as a young peasant girl that has local boys routinely flashing their cocks at her, Mouchette does not exactly have a healthy background for understanding sex and romance.



 While it is somewhat arguable as to what the true catalyst is that leads to her suicide, Mouchette’s mother's death certainly does not help and ultimately leads her on a morbidly melancholic road to self-annihilation. Indeed, despite being aware of the fact that her mother has just died, everyone seems to gang up on Mouchette on the day after she looses her sole loving parent, as if she lives in a village occupied by frogland’s most sadistic, hateful, and most frigid individuals. For example, her pathetic (non)father calls her a “little hussy” right after he mother dies, henceforth inspiring Mouchette to loudly yell “merde” (aka “shit”) and then wander the village where she is met with unwarranted abuse after abuse from an eclectic range of individuals that includes teenage boys and bitter old farts. On a quest to find her baby brother some milk, Mouchette goes to the local grocery store where the female grocer gives her a croissant and tells her that she is sorry about her mother, but then calls her a “little slut” after the hapless heroine accidentally breaks a bowl of coffee and then post-coital scratches on her chest subsequently become quite noticeable to the bitchy busybody. Upon being randomly invited into gamekeeper Mathieu’s house under dubious pretenses, the man’s wife attempts to get Mouchette to admit that Arsène got her drunk and raped her as the old woman realizes she reeks of gin from the night before, but she refuses to give up her self-described “lover,” thus revealing her sick (yet nonetheless understandable) sense of solidarity with the village’s foremost misfit criminal. After refusing to collude with the gamekeeper and his wife in bringing down her rapist, Mouchette visits an exceedingly elderly woman that almost seems like a sort of female Grim Reaper who engages in ‘ancestor worship’ and proudly declares, “I love the dead. I understand them.” When Mouchette demonstrates her somewhat strange sense of contempt for the old woman by rebelliously grinds mud onto a fancy rug with her oversized clogs, the odd old-timer remains eerily calm and simply states, “Are you asleep? Your heart’s asleep. Don’t wake it too fast. You have time enough.” Clearly not wanting her help, Mouchette hatefully states to the old woman, “You disgusting old thing,” to which she calmly replies, “I only want to help you. You’re being mean. It’s because you can’t understand. There’s evil in your eyes.” Despite her rather rude and hateful behavior, the old woman gives the female protagonist a burial shroud for her mother’s corpse and some dresses. As to why Mouchette is so mean and rude to the old woman, it seems that she fears she will grow up to be an eccentric loner and recluse just like her, thus assumedly giving her just one more reason to commit suicide. 


 As if being egged on by the universe to off herself, Mouchette witnesses, among other things, the horrific sight of cutesy rabbits being gunned down by local hunters while taking a scenic stroll in the country (notably, the film actually features authentic footage of rabbits being killed and it is surprisingly grisly, thus forcing the viewer to confront the discomfort that the heroine feels). When the heroine reaches a grimly placid pond, she wraps a white muslin dress that the old woman gave to her around her body and then proceeds to roll down a hill in what just seems to be simple innocent childish fun, at least initially. Unfortunately, the final nail in the casket occurs for Mouchette when she attempts to wave to a man on a large tractor and he completely ignores her. After that, Mouchette decides to roll down the hill two more times and on her final attempt she accomplishes her goal of falling into the pond where she drowns in what is indubitably the serenest and most sublime depiction of suicide in cinema history. In the end, the film comes full circle with the soothing sounds of “Magnificat” from Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi’s Baroque Psalm composition ‘Vespers for the Blessed Virgin.’ As Bresson stated in an interview with Yvonne Baby featured in the March 14, 1967 issue of the newspaper Le Monde in regard to the significance of this composition, “The music isn’t about sustenance or reinforcement; it precedes and it concludes. It envelops the film in Christianity. It was necessary.” 



 While I admittedly found the conclusion of Mouchette to be inordinately beauteous, I also found it to be somewhat heartbreaking for personal reasons as the titular teen just as easily could have been my ex-girlfriend.  Indeed, before we got together, she did quite mindlessly reckless things like overdose on cough syrup during a failed excursion in ‘robo-tripping’ in between getting in fights with her mother that led to her being almost literally strangled to death. Luckily, quite unlike the film’s tragic heroine, my ex is now a happily married mother with a child that receives the love and affection she deserved but never received as a child. Of course, Bresson’s film made me realize that she just as easily could have succumbed to some miserable, pathetic, and/or pointlessly tragic fate had circumstances in her life been slightly different. In that sense, Mouchette was easily the most potent film I have ever seen dealing with the subject of suicide, which of course Bresson was the unequivocal master of as also demonstrated by his later works like Une femme douce (1969) aka A Gentle Woman and Le diable probablement (1977) aka The Devil Probably. Of course, the eponymous heroine’s final act is like a poor vulgar country prole equivalent to ‘A Gentle Creature’ in the Dostoevskian sense (after all, like the real-life seamstress that inspired Dostoyevsky’s titular short story, Bresson’s character is an example of a “meek suicide” that “keeps haunting you for a long time”). As Joseph Cunneen rightly noted in his book Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (2003), “MOUCHETTE is perhaps the most touching of Bresson’s films, and its poetic realism succeeds in giving the girl’s ‘suicide’ the overtones of liberation. The film is emotionally accessible to a broad public, except for those who are unable to see anything but bleakness in its ending.” Indeed, arguably the most shocking aspect of the film is how unshocking the suicide really is, which is a testament to Bresson’s singular genius as a genuine humanistic artist. 


 
Although I have mixed feelings about suicide and the integrity (or lack thereof) involved with such a truly permanent act, Mouchette certainly made me rethink it from a philosophical perspective. In fact, the film inspired to revisit E. M. Cioran’s arguable magnum opus A Short History of Decay (1949) aka Précis de decomposition, most specifically his aphoristic essay ‘My Heroes’ where he argues, “When we are young we look for heroes. I have had mine: Kleist, Karoline von Günderrode, Nerval, Otto Weininger. . . . Intoxicated by their suicides, I was certain that they alone had gone to the end, that they drew, in death, the right conclusion from their thwarted or fulfilled loves, from their broken minds or philosophic pain. That a man should survive his passion was enough to make him contemptible or abject in my eyes: which is to say that humanity was superfluous. I discovered in it an infinitesimal number of lofty resolutions and so much compromise with life that I turned away from it, determined to put an end to it all before I was thirty. But as the years went by, I lost the pride of youth: each day, like a lesson in humility, I reminded myself that I was still alive, that I was betraying my dreams among men rotten with . . . life. Exasperated by the expectation of no longer existing, I considered it a duty to cleave my flesh when dawn broke after a night of love, and that it was a nameless degradation to sully by memory an excess of sighs. Or, at other moments, how was one to insult duration further, when one had grasped everything in a dilation which enthrones pride in the very heavens? I thought that the only action a man could perform without shame was to take his life, that he had no right to diminish himself in the succession of days and the inertia of misery. Not elect, I kept telling myself, but those who committed suicide. Even now, I have more esteem for a concierge who hangs himself than for a living poet. Man is provisionally exempt from suicide: that is his one glory, his one excuse. But he is not aware of it, and calls cowardice the courage of those who dared to raise themselves by death above themselves. We are bound together by a tacit pact to go on to the last breath: this pact which cements our solidarity dooms us nonetheless—our entire race is stricken by its infamy. Without suicide, no salvation. Strange! that death, thought eternal, has not become part of our ‘behavior’: sole reality, it cannot become a vogue. Thus, as living men, we are all retarded. . . .

Of course, it is ironically the ‘pride of youth’ that gives the titular heroine of the film the nerve enact felo-de-se with such fierce yet playfully executed finality, though she clearly does not need a deep philosophical argument to off herself, which makes her self-obliteration all the more ‘pure’ and morbidly intriguing (indeed, personally I find the stereotypical ‘bourgeois intellectual suicide’ to be mostly banal, if not downright completely cliche). When Mouchette’s mother warns her just before croaking, “Make sure you never get taken in by lazy workmen or drunks,” not long after she is raped by the most loathsome of drunken deadbeat lumpenproles, it becomes all too painfully clear that her life is already a devastatingly fatalistic disaster and that her future will indubitably be plagued with unending pain, misery, and abuse. Although even somewhat immature for her age as indicated by her cravenly childish bullying of her classmates and preposterously nihilistic displays of fruitless rebellion, the heroine certainly has a certain intuitive wisdom that is beyond her years on a visceral level that not even Cioran—the well educated son of an Orthodox priest who, compared to most Romanians of his era, had a relatively comfortable upbringing—could comprehend, at least not instinctually. Either way, it is impossible to be angry with Mouchette for her actions. 



 Undoubtedly, one really realizes the brilliance of Mouchette when one considers that Bresson simply saw it as a sort of experiment or “essai” (aka “exercise”).  Indeed, as Bresson confided to Godard in a May 1966 interview featured in Cahiers du Cinéma in regard to his objective with the film, “Instead of a whole group of lives and different characters . . . I want to concentrate, constantly, absolutely, on one face, the face of this little girl, to see her reactions. . . . And I will choose, yes, the most awkward little girl there is, and try to draw from her everything that she will not suspect I am drawing from her. That is what interests me, and the camera will not leave her.” While I have obviously never met Nadine Nortier and was not even born until almost two decades after the film was released, there is no doubt in my mind that Bresson managed to capture her completely organic expressions in all their coarseness, vulgarity, tactlessness, awkwardness and youthful purity. Surely, it is no coincidence that the very first aphorism of Bresson’s rather short yet completely invaluable text Notes on the Cinematographer (1975) is, “Rid myself of the accumulated errors and untruths. Get to know my resources, make sure of them,” as Mouchette, like virtually all of the filmmaker’s great works, does not contain a single false note or second of filler. Indeed, as the film reveals, André Bazin was right when he wrote that Bresson is “concerned not with the psychology but with the physiology of existence,” though it is impossible to not assume things about Nortier’s character's psychology when confronted with her rather unforgettable physiology. 




 Although I will not attempt any sort of theological interpretation of Mouchette in regard to the heroine’s suicide, film scholar turned auteur Paul Schrader, who incidentally recently completely his own rather Bressonian film First Reformed (2017), provides a good argument in his sole book Transcendental Style In Film (1972) when he states, “Intertwined with the abjuration of the body in Bresson’s films is the vexing problem of suicide: If the body enslaves the soul, why not destroy the body and be free? St. Ambrose stated the case quite clearly: ‘Let us die, if we may leave, or if we be denied leave, yet let us die. God cannot be offended with this, when we use it for a remedy,’ and Augustine and Aquinas rushed to counter the argument. Marvin Zeman, in an essay on suicide in Bresson’s films, has demonstrated that Bresson, particularly in his later films, has come to associate himself with a radical wing of Christianity (including, among others, St. Ambrose, John Donne, and George Bernanos) which regards suicide as a positive good.” Charles Barr certainly provides support for Schrader’s claim when he argued in his essay on Mouchette featured in the book The Films Of Robert Bresson (1969) that, “Her suicide is right; and Bresson gets from us, certainly, the ‘stock’ responses to such a suicide – pity for her, disgust for those who caused it. But, to go back to the point I started on, he quite excludes the often almost inseparable shallower response, the impulse to despair of the world, but rather to luxuriate in hopelessness, as in Shelley’s lines ‘I could lie down like a tired child / And weep away [this] life of care’. The ‘tired child’ here does nothing like this.” Indeed, in her own dubious way, the heroine achieves transcendence by escaping the seemingly perennial void of her own painfully dead-end earthly existence. If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right when he wrote, “The meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering but in the development of the soul,” one can see why Mouchette chose death over life as she seemed to be foredoomed to a forsaken existence that would have only all the more warped and debased her already rather damaged soul, thus her suicide seems like an act of (seemingly subconscious) self-salvation. Notably, Bresson would even admit in an interview with Napoléon Murat featured in the March 16, 1967 issue of Le Figaro littéraire when questioned about despair in source writer Bernanos’ work that, “If there is despair in his work, it’s due to an error in the writing, more likely due to poor reading. Even suicide . . . Mouchette’s, for example—Bernanos says this in so many words—is not cause for despair. Her innocence, her terror are like those of an animal being tracked. In the film there’s a parallel between the game bird and Mouchette. For her, death isn’t an end, a finality (Bernanos dixit) but, one the contrary, it’s a beginning. She’s waiting for a revelation.” 

At the very end of his interview with Georges Sadoul featured in the March 16, 1967 issue of the French literary publication Les Lettres Françaises, Bresson reveals his surprising sense of humility by remarking in a rhetorical fashion, “I wonder if my films are worth the effort they require.” For me, the simple answer to his (non)question is that, in terms of quality, Bresson’s films provide a value that is probably worth more than every single film associated with the La Nouvelle Vague combined, as they do the seemingly inexplicable by providing a spiritual experience in celluloid form that will follow (or, some might say, ‘haunt’) the viewer for the rest of their lives, which is certainly no small accomplishment for any serious artist.  After recently revisiting Dead Poets Society (1989)—a film directed by an Australian auteur that I have always had great respect for—my belief that Mouchette features the greatest suicide scene in cinema history has only been reinforced.  Indeed, famous for its scene near the end where Robert Sean Leonard's character commits suicide because his uptight father will not allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a theater fag, the famous offing scene in Dead Poets Society ultimately seems like a cheap melodramatic ritual when compared to the transcendental majesty of Bresson's depiction of spontaneous teenage self-termination.  Even after writing this long ass review, I feel that words are simply inadequate when it comes to describing the great joyous passion of little Mouchette's suicide, no matter how sick or demented that sounds.



-Ty E

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