Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 22 January 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Features: Robert Bresson
The Mouchette of Georges Bernanos’ Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette is a girl of fourteen living in the tiny French village of Saint-Venant, roughly equidistant to Calais and Lille and not far from the Belgian border. Her mother, recently having given birth to a fat baby that seems never to stop crying, is on the verge of succumbing to an undiagnosed terminal illness. Her father, an alcoholic with no apparent job, is rarely at home but abusive when he is. Mouchette has older brothers, but they are even more invisible than her father. For lack of anything better to do, Mouchette somewhat regularly attends school. She is unpopular, both with her teacher and her classmates, and finds her only joy in aggravating them by, respectively, clacking her clogs noisily as she walks and pelting them with mud. One evening, attempting to savor the brief respite from rancor that is her walk home, Mouchette meanders through the nearby woods. Soon, rain begins to pour and the winds begin to blow. Panicking, Mouchette gets lost in the woods and loses one of her clogs. She is soon come upon by a game poacher (and notorious drunkard), Arsène, with whom she is acquainted. Arsène is kind to her and takes her to his shelter when she may dry off and wait for the rain to stop while he braves the weather to retrieve her clog. Arsène returns and confides to Mouchette that he may have just killed the village’s game warden, Mathieu, in a drunken brawl. Mouchette is not frightened by this but rather tries to comfort Arsène and helps construct an alibi for him. Suddenly, the poacher falls to the floor in an epileptic seizure and Mouchette rushes to cradle his head as she sings to him. Upon recovering, Arsène has no memory of any encounter with the warden. Mouchette makes the mistake of reminding Arsène of his crime, and he thanks her for her efforts by raping her. Though traumatized by this turn of events, Mouchette maintains a great tenderness toward Arsène, possibly because he is the only person ever to have shown any kindness to her at all, and possibly because, as an outsider, she feels a kinship with him. Mouchette and Arsène seem almost like elemental creatures trapped between nature and civilization; she is too raw and savage to live in a world of manners and customs but too helpless to be on her own.
Mouchette returns to her home early the next morning only to witness her mother’s death. Faced with having to run the household, raise the baby, and bear the brunt of her father’s alcoholic rages all on her own, Mouchette makes an excuse of fetching milk for the baby and runs out of the house. As she spends the morning wandering through the village, she is taken in the grocer’s wife before she is run out again for dropping her coffee cup. She stops by the house of the game warden (who is not only alive, but totally unharmed), before being turned out again because she refuses to incriminate Arsène in a dynamiting scheme for which he has been arrested but of which she knows him to be innocent. She is then taken in by the old veilleuse who will watch over her mother’s body. Seeing Mouchette’s ragged garments, the woman gives her the dress of a young girl who died while under the woman’s care. Thoughts of death now filling her mind, Mouchette goes to rest by the edge of a disused quarry now filled with rainwater. As she unfolds the threadbare dress she was given, she accidentally steps on it and tears it. This being one more disappointment than she can bear, Mouchette slides down into the water to her death.
Too short and focused to fit into any Bildungsroman genre, Bernanos’ story is not the story of the rape of a girl, nor is it the story of the death of a girl’s mother. Taking place in a feverish span of approximately fifteen or sixteen hours, it is in essence the story of a girl’s first moment of introspection. That moment, and the horror of realization in which it results, proves too much for Mouchette and she can no longer go on living. Suicide becomes, for Mouchette, the ultimate expression of disgust regarding her circumstances. It is her only means of saying to her father, to Arsène, to the grocer’s wife, to the game warden, to her teacher, “no.” In its brevity and phantasmagoric intensity, Mouchette’s tale resembles a fairy tale. Robert Bresson’s film adaptation of the novella is something else entirely.
The first half-hour of Bresson’s film is a combination of newly-created scenes and scenes that appeared as reminiscences in Bernanos’ text. Since the omniscient narrator style of Bernanos’ book prohibits Bresson from adapting (as he did in his first Bernanos adaptation, Diary of a Country Priest) a first-person narrative as voiceover, Bresson spends the first half-hour developing Mouchette as a character before he begins piling on the injustices described in the novella. Thus, he invents scenes that portray her flirting with a boy as they ride bumper cars in a carnival (in the book, Mouchette not only takes no interest in boys, she finds them positively revolting), washing glasses in a bar after school to help support her family, sitting with her father in the same bar as he converses with friends, and going to church. Though these scenes establish that Mouchette has a rough domestic life and no friends, they also destroy the compressed time frame of the book’s narrative. Though it is easy to hurl stones at a movie that takes liberties with the source from which it is adapted (as if taking liberties invariably resulted in a lesser work), it is not Bresson’s addition of new scenes but rather how these scenes construct Mouchette as a character that lessens the power of the story and characterizations. Each one of these scenes show Mouchette as integrated into the social structure of the village, entirely contradictory to her extreme isolation as described by Bernanos. In Bresson’s film, Mouchette seems to be not so much a lost soul as she is a naive, dim-witted, slightly ill-behaved innocent. In attempting to make the hero of this film as tragically worthy of grace as the donkey in Au Hasard Balthazar (the Bresson film Mouchette most closely resembles), Bresson has turned a savage girl with violent thoughts into a meek, dumb animal who manages to be less expressive than Balthazar’s donkey. The complex emotions roiling under Mouchette’s comparatively calm exterior are expressed in the film only in the copious viscous tears that, apropos of nothing, pool up on her cheeks.
Despite the inventions of the first half-hour, several scenes and characters in the film are precise translations of scenes and characters described in the book. Mouchette’s oversized clogs appear (and sound) exactly as described in the book, her teacher is just as precisely aggravated by her refusal to sing during the music lesson and humiliates Mouchette in exactly the same manner, and her baby brother is just as fat and exasperating as one would imagine from Bernanos’ description. One baffling exception, however, is Bresson’s creation of a love triangle between Arsène, Mathieu, and a barmaid. This integration of Arsène into the social structure of the village not only adds a conventional melodramatic reason for the ill will between Arsène and Mathieu (when a perfectly good reason already existed), it eliminates him as an outsider double to Mouchette. There is nothing that sets him apart from the other villagers who are alternately (and rather indiscriminately, in the film) kind or cruel to Mouchette.
I can imagine that Mouchette’s transformation from wild child to martyr not only allows her to fit into Bresson’s universe a little more readily but makes her more sympathetic to an audience. Bresson performed the same transformation on the hero of his previous Bernanos adaptation — the priest in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest is really kind of a jerk who cannot stand his parishioners — and did so with great success. What makes Mouchette’s transformation unsuccessful is that while she has become an entirely different girl, her end is still the same. However, suicide – what in the book seems like not just a good option but her only option – becomes in the film just another mildly diverting thing for her to do, like throwing mud at classmates. Furthermore, the way that Bresson films the event is more likely to elicit giggles than shock: Bresson shows Mouchette not sliding but rolling into the water. Furthermore, she has to roll down the same incline not once, not twice, but three times before she is successful (to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, “To fail at suicide once may be regarded as a misfortune; to fail twice looks like carelessness”). Bresson doesn’t show her entering the water, but has her roll out of frame followed by a loud splash on the soundtrack. He then cuts to a shot of the rippling water that is quite visibly looped backward and forward, backward and forward, six or seven times. The scene reveals a disappointing lack of judgment and technique, two things that are usually not in short supply in a Bresson film, and this sense of disappointment is what sticks with one after viewing the film. Anyone familiar with the superior filmmaking in Bresson’s previous and later works and with his usual peerless literary adaptation skills will recognize Mouchette as a failure of both.