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Class and Gender in 1960s France


Robert Bresson’s Mouchette

Robert Bresson’s 1967 film Mouchette explores the paradoxical relationship between pain and pleasure.

Too poor for church.

It tells the story of an impoverished girl whose life goes from bad to worse over the course of one day.

Ghislain Cloquet’s black-and-white cinematography is a marvel, just as it was for the Bresson film released the previous year, Au hasard Balthazar.

Both films push aestheticism to the point where it becomes political. As spectators, we feel implicated in the tortures their protagonists endure.

This makes these films hard to watch. But their beauty makes them hard to stop watching.

Although Bresson was not a self-consciously engagé filmmaker, Mouchette documents the injuries of class and gender with clarity and compassion.

The most minor details of the eponymous protagonist’s attire communicate her predicament.

Mouchette suffers because she is starting to look like a woman. Yet we understand that her place in society makes that suffering more likely and more intense.

In this regard, her plight mirrors that of the donkey in Au hasard Balthazar. Both are destined to be beasts of burden.

Unlike Balthazar, Mouchette talks back.

Because her mother is dying, Mouchette is forced to take on the role of homemaker just as she is entering the most awkward stage of adolescence.

This includes caring for her baby brother, who is only a few months old, and serving her father and brother as her mother did.

To make matters worse, her father’s rage and sadness about her mother’s condition are transmuted into hostility towards her. He resents her youthful vitality.

The children at school mock Mouchette for her threadbare clothes, wooden clogs, and unkempt appearance.

And even when people in her small, provincial town seem to show kindness towards her, it comes with an edge.

Over the course of a single day, Mouchette’s depressing existence is turned upside down.

But instead of resigning herself to the fate that her class and gender have in store for her, she starts to fight back.

In one pivotal scene, she tells Arsène, the epileptic poacher holding her prisoner, that she will lie for him. “I hate them,” she declares. “I’ll stand up to them all.”

Although the referent for this plural pronoun isn’t spelt out, the film makes it abundantly clear that Mouchette means almost everyone in her hometown.

She hates the people who are needlessly cruel to her because she is poor or a girl. But she almost seems to hate the people who treat her with kindness more.

Why?

From Mouchette’s perspective, the old woman who gives her lovely dresses and the shopkeeper who offers her coffee and a croissant don’t do these things out of the goodness of their hearts.

These gestures are no less self-interested than the casual cruelty of the boys who shout at her on the street or the girls in school who mock her appearance.

Mouchette understands that charity is a form of aggression, a way to reinforce a position of structural superiority.

Given the depressing character of the source material Bresson favored, he could easily have made sentimental films. But he forcefully resisted that impulse.

The most obvious way was forsaking the sweeping scores typical for his era.

Bresson’s refusal to use professional actors also helps to ward off sentimentality.

Although Nadine Nortier makes a remarkable impression as Mouchette, it derives as much from what she doesn’t do as what she does. Her performance communicates massive ambivalence, about her family, her community, and herself.

We don’t feel her pain in the way that we would if we were watching a sentimental movie because she frequently doesn’t appear to feel it either.

Even when tears roll down her cheeks, it seems like an outdated reflex produced them, one this suddenly much more grown-up young woman has little patience for.

The mode of expression she gravitates toward is a deadpan spite, making awful statements without noticeable affect.

Sometimes the camera in Mouchette shows us things from the protagonist’s perspective. Sometimes it shows her looking around. And sometimes it goes elsewhere.

What remains constant is the camera’s emotional alignment. It sees the way Mouchette sees, warily but without flinching.

Instead of maintaining a fixed viewpoint for every shot, as is typical in professionally made pictures, Cloquet’s canera frequently mimics how human sight works, drawing attention to noteworthy details by centring them in the frame.

This human quality powerfully reinforces the identification of the camera with the film’s protagonist. But this connection is periodically disrupted.

During an extended scene in the cabin where Arsène is holding Mouchette against her will, she drops her school bag at one point. Instead of cutting and then showing a separate close-up of the bag, the camera tilts downward in one continuous motion, keeping the bag in view. But Mouchette keeps her piercing gaze on Arsène the whole time.

At moments like these, we aren’t seeing what Mouchette sees.

Yet even though this shot suggests an effort to restore the native objectivity of the camera lens, by this point in the story, we identify too strongly with her not to comprehend the meaning of this letting go.

This shot is a particularly obvious version of something that happens over and over throughout the film.

Towards the end of the story, we watch a rabbit get shot by a hunter and are then forced to watch its anguished death throes as it flops around on the ground.

We know Mouchette is witnessing this gruesome spectacle, perhaps from a different perspective. And we sense that it is having a significant impact on her. Yet her face remains impassive.

Because we spend the vast majority of the film with Mouchette, the times when the camera leaves her side stand out.

In one of the film’s most famous sequences, a woman gives Mouchette a ticket so that she can ride the bumper cars. By the end, she has learned to flirt with a boy, either by hitting him or letting herself be hit.

When her father understands what she has been doing, he slaps her.

We then see Mouchette at the table outside the café, tears running down her cheeks, eyes downcast, while her father glowers angrily on her left.

At this point, the camera pulls back, showing us the other side of the table, as the grey-suited man sitting across from Mouchette stands up.

In the short sequence that follows, it is clear that we are not experiencing what Mouchette does since she is too focused on her humiliation to register what is taking place.

Louisa, the barmaid from the café, meets Arsène at the carnival ticket booth, then gets in one car of the rocket-ship ride. He crams his way in alongside her.

We then cut to a reverse shot of the grey-suited man, his face now visible, gazing upward. It’s the gamekeeper Mathieu.

As Louisa and Arsène zoom past the camera, we see her look down periodically in the direction where Mathieu would be standing. She smiles.

The implication is that she knows he is watching her and is taking pleasure in his pain.

Mathieu returns to the table and sits down again at his place. Mouchette is not visible in the frame, but can be recognised by a sliver of her shadow on the wall of the café behind her, underscoring how messy her hair is.

We cut to a shot of a soberly dressed man at an adjoining table, looking at Mathieu. “He’s making a fool of you,” he declares. “Who is?” the grey-suited man replies. “Arsène.”

At this point, Arsène walks up between their tables and enters the café doorway, where a man steps up to block his entry. He then turns around and walks back in the direction he had come.

We finally see Mouchette in the frame again, now staring directly at Mathieu as he declares, “I’ll get him.”

Mouchette then looks away from Mathieu, the tracks of her tears now drying into a glaze, in the direction Arsène would have been walking, then back at Mathieu, her expression suggesting quiet contempt.

We then cut to Mathieu looking over his right shoulder, Mouchette no longer in the frame, as Lousia walks towards him.

The next cut brings us inside the café, the barmaid on the far left of the frame. She goes behind the bar, puts her apron back on, and polishes a glass.

Mathieu walks up to the bar to confront her about Arsène. She coldly rebuffs him.

The scene concludes with Mathieu having returned to his place at the outside table, where he drains his glass standing up and then walks off, accompanied by the woman who has been sitting by his side the entire time in silence. Later, we learn that she is Mathieu’s wife.

Even though Mouchette isn’t paying attention at the beginning of this story-within-a-story, it’s clear that she has caught up by the end.

She may put herself in danger to live some of the drama she has witnessed. But even if that isn’t what Mouchette desires, exposure to this spectacle profoundly impacts her.

Near the end of the film, she visits Mathieu and his wife. Now, the wife is speaking, taking charge of what amounts to an interrogation of the girl.

Recalling that the wife said nothing while her husband was upset about another man romancing his mistress, Mouchette refuses to sugarcoat her responses.

Although Mathieu’s wife might be a lot better off than her financially, she still suffers the indignities of being a woman in a patriarchal society.

Maybe it’s better to bite the and that feeds you, both literally and figuratively, as Mochette does over and over.

Mouchette comes to a grim end. And Mouchette might as well, though Bresson leaves her fate ambiguous. But there is a glint of hope amid the gloom.

What matters is that she refuses to act like the human equivalent of Au hasard Balthazar’s donkey, taking on loads with a docile temperament, or the women she knows who do the same.

If Mouchette makes bad decisions, they are her decisions. And that makes her free, even if her life still seems like a prison.

Screenshot courtesy of Criterion Collection. All rights reserved.