Directed by Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson likes to fragment the human body. He referred to actors as models, really just mannequins to be positioned for the camera. The performances are stale, stripped of emotion, and the point of his films is the context more than any one scene. His stories feel like sermons, whether about greed, survival, or both (L’argent, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket).
Mouchette is about a sad, picked upon girl named Mouchette, whose name translates to “Little Fly.” She’s a pest to everyone around her, particularly her parents, even the dying one, and her only outlet for all her anger is to throw mud at other schoolchildren. At its simplest, this is a story about an outcast, a story about pain and what it feels like to be in pain.
Over the course of the plot, Mouchette meets an epileptic gamekeeper who thinks he’s killed another man. Mouchette offers to cover for him, to act as an alibi, and soon he rapes her. This is a movie where something inviting might happen, and then something horribly cruel happens. Mouchette only ever suffers. The one moment of happiness, during a playful game of bumper cars, is followed by her father literally slapping the smile off her face.
Though just a young girl, Mouchette cares for her dying mother and takes care of her infant sibling. She’s forced to grow up early, but she’s so emotionally stunted by a miserable wasteland of a world around her that she continually withdraws into herself. When she offers to act as an alibi to the epileptic seizure, if feels like an honest attempt to connect with another human being. She wants to cover for him because maybe his pain reminds her of her own. But then he acts out on that pain, attacking her, and later she insists to another that they’re lovers, either mistaking this attack for love or choosing to ignore the grotesque nature of the encounter. Mouchette might have never known what it felt like to show or feel affection, so this act of sexual violence, to her, might just be what she thinks lovemaking is. And that’s awful because her life is awful.
Bresson himself said, about Mouchette, that she “offers evidence of misery and cruelty. She is found everywhere: wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations.” Another French director from this time, Alain Resnais, made Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film about love in the famous Japanese city, with so much imagery of death and suffering in regards to the atomic bomb dropped there. His characters embody suffering like Mouchette does. Their pain is meant to feel universal or at least to draw out our empathy.
So presenting a character like Mouchette makes us care about her. Her life is so miserable, so full of suffering, that we want to take care of her. And once Bresson has us in our grasp, he has a lot of power with what to do next. A film like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood makes us empathize with a child soldier, part of the tragedy of his character being his lack of a childhood (innocence). That film implies his death, making us sad partially because another character mourns the boy. Our sadness, then, is felt by another, and though it’s a tragic ending, there might be some hope that this tragedy doesn’t go unnoticed.
But Mouchette dies, and she dies alone. It may even be a suicide, as she rolls quietly into a pond and doesn’t emerge. Even more likely, it seems, is that she simply ceases to exist. It’s not that dies as much as she vanished because she barely existed in the first place, her life being so miserable and shunned. No one is there to watch her except for us. We feel the pain, at least we’re meant to, and no one else does. No one else will. This type of thing, this type of pain and these types of characters will continue to exist and to then not exist, passing through with no one to care.
Or maybe that’s being a little dramatic, but Mouchette, like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Resnais’ 1955 Holocaust documentary, Shadows and Fog, presents a grim portrait of our world and our empathy. A film like this puts the onus on us to do something or to at least care.
Of Bresson’s other films, I have seen A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959) and L’argent (1983). Each film is devoid of personality, though some seeps in through the characters’ consistently hollow, wide eyes. The more devoid of expression they are, the more we project onto them, and yet at the same time, such a lack of emotion just comes off as sad. At least, that’s the case here. In L’argent, a character watches his life collapse around him until he breaks and becomes a serial killer, yet his expression never betrays how he feels about what’s happening. He just struggles through life with the same emotive quality as a Twitter avatar for someone yet to pick a profile photo.
In A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, the hero is determined, fueled more by a need to survive than anything else. In Pickpocket this fuel morphs into something resembling greed, the character transforming a little over the course of the journey as in L’argent. In all three films, Bresson isolates parts of the body, often focusing on hands. As mannequins, his characters’ actions mean more than their words and certainly more than their expressions.
Whether it’s hands or feet or even his characters’ eyes, Bresson forces us to observe an action without any sense of how we should feel. It’s up to us to analyze this behavior and to ascribe our own emotion to the scene.
There’s an idea that a movie, or just a shot, can be democratic or… monarchic? I don’t know the exact term. It’s an idea, I believe, written about by French critic and theorist Andre Bazin in What is Cinema? He discussed the realism of a film, and the idea is that in a wide shot, where you can see the entire scene, is democratic. You are allowed to focus your attention on any part of the scene. But when the camera cuts into a closer shot (and in particular in a montage), the director is telling you what to look at, directing your attention. In one style, you decide what’s meaningful, and in the other, you’re told what’s meaningful.
With Bresson, I think he’s somewhere in the middle. He often cuts to close ups within a scene, directing our attention to something or someone, but then he offers so few clues as to how to feel about that person or thing. Their expressionless nature forces us to continue to choose how to feel. Sure, we’re told what to look at, but we’re in a sense being forcibly shown the fact that we can’t completely know what to think. It’s like Bresson is directing our attention towards a brick wall. “Do you see it?” He might say, and we just stare at the chipped bricks, searching desperately for the meaning he’s referring to. Finally you shove him away and say, “Yes, yes, Jesus I see it,” and rub your neck where his nails were digging in a little too deep. “Good,” he says and wanders off into a sudden sunset, like a cowboy at the end of a western, and the abruptness of his visit and departure makes you wonder, “Was that Banksy?”
The point is, you don’t know. Maybe Bresson really wanted to poke holes in the alleged manipulation of emotion in cinema. Based on his style of shooting and cutting, you’d expect to be given a clear depiction of the characters and their emotions. With their lack of emotion, though, we’re shown that nothing’s really there. These are just actors hitting their marks and speaking with as little inflection in their voice as possible. Bresson hopes to make us aware of the medium as much as the story.