Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mouchette (dir. Robert Bresson)

Will this film make me laugh? Cry? Will I have fun for a couple of hours then forget all about it by the next day? If that's the kind of questions that run through your mind when evaluating a film, then for God's sake, please read no further. Robert Bresson is clearly not what you're looking for, and his film "Mouchette" will quite likely force you to ponder questions about life and death that you probably spend most of your waking hours trying to avoid.

Yes, it's bleak. Mouchette is a prepubescent girl who lives in poverty. When she's not at school or at work at a local diner, she's at home caring for her dying mother, baby sister, and wine-smuggling drunkard of a father. Her teacher slaps her for singing out of key, and her schoolmates despise her and her cheap wooden clogs. Mouchette's few joys in the film include throwing mud at the rich girls, decimating her opponents in a game of bumper cars, and caring for an epileptic murderer. Cheery, no?

The film delights in symbolism. We open with some of Bresson's most stunning and effective cinematography, a cat-and-mouse game between Arsene, the poacher, and Mathieu, the game warden. A figure concealed by dense shrubbery sneaks upon a clearing. Hands, in closeup, set partridge traps. Another pair of eyes watch, wait. The traps snap, and the game begins. Birds struggle helplessly in the nooses, writhing in pain. Mathieu carefully approaches one of the frightened animals, seizing it in a moment of weakness. He unties the noose, releasing the bird. Arsene watches his defeat, then flees the scene. The sequence economically anticipates the film's primary motif. Mouchette is like this bird, caught between two opposing forces: her own independent, noble spirit, and a society that despises her for circumstances beyond her control. She struggles, but in vain. Will someone release her from this trap? In a way, yes, though her "liberation" has left audiences implacably divided, often along religious lines.

"Mouchette" is the second time Bresson adapted a novel by Goerge Bernanos, the first being his internationally renowned success, "Diary of a Country Preist." Bernanos's style seems perfectly suited for Bresson; he deals with the interior aspects of the characters, their thoughts, the movements of their souls. Bresson's peculiar aesthetic seems uniquely capable of rendering these themes on the screen. The flatness of his photography, the automatism of his characters, the interdependence of his images, all point toward the hidden, concealed, yet inexplicably revealed. And though the "plot" defies all attempts at conventional analysis, the film is a wholly compelling exercise in form, layered with meaning, and divisive in it's conclusions. It's also an impressive sifting of characters, themes, and motifs, each of which stand on their own, yet combined form something altogether different.

Last Word: "Mouchette" is a touching film of rebellion and independence that unites audiences in their appreciation and divides them in their conclusions.

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