Criterion Sunday 363: Mouchette (1967)

This is probably my favourite film of Bresson’s from the 1960s, and though all of them deal with suffering and pity to a certain extent, in Mouchette he seems to approach it with the most intensity of expression. Indeed, it functions almost as a silent film for much of its running time; certainly its titular teenage heroine (Nadine Nortier) barely speaks a word, and there are entire sequences that pass with just looks between the characters, as their judgement (mostly of the young Mouchette) becomes evident. For her fellow villagers, she seems to exude the sin of being particularly poor — she lives in a one-room home with her father, grown brother, baby brother and a dying mother (Marie Cardinal) in the bed needing her constant attention. What her poverty gets her is being bullied at school, talked down to by the older generation and abused by a local poacher (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who shelters her from a rainstorm at night when she gets lost in the forest.

There was, however, also a period after I’d watched this film a number of times in close succession where I identified a comedic streak in it, which in retrospect is probably trolling, but certainly there are moments of joy and even laughter studded throughout, which somehow only seems to heighten the general sense of immiseration. Mouchette laughs and has fun at a dodgem cars ride at a funfair, she happily hums and pours out coffees for her family on the side of the stove, she cheekily throws clods of dirt at her haughty classmates — all of these bring smiles. That all said, it moves inexorably towards tragedy as events pile up and the judgements become ever more severe. Bresson’s severe style ensures that everything — all extraneous images and sounds — is pared away except for these distilled moments, and it’s what lends the ending its effectiveness.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson (based on the novel Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette by Georges Bernanos); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Marie Cardinal; Length 78 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Wednesday 20 June 2001 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, then at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 11 October 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 September 2020).

Criterion Sunday 297: Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).