Teenage Torment: Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) – Blu-ray review
Choose your own misadventure, as Bresson lays out the facts of a teenage girl’s misery but invites the audience to supply the emotion.
(Robert Bresson, 1967)
If you didn’t know, it would be very hard to guess the year – or even the decade – in which Mouchette was made. While some movies are defined by their age, Robert Bresson’s stark drama about the ordeal of a neglected teenage girl achieves a timeless, near-abstract quality. This might have been made during the 1930s or even earlier… but no, it was 1967, a banner year in French cinema that produced vital, forward-thinking films like Weekend, Playtime, Belle Du Jour and Le Samourai.
The film bears zero relation to any of those, which means, to modern eyes, there are no stylistic distractions; Mouchette can be viewed solely on what is presented, which is how Bresson liked it. This is a film in which many things are shown – faces, gestures, objects and even the occasional incident – but the meaning is left to interpretation. Bresson favoured an allegorical approach, believing that Mouchette symbolises everybody who grew up in war or strife. Yet it’s to the film’s credit that the imagery never makes explicit connections – it is so spare and austere that the audience does the heavy lifting.
The story is slight, but gripping enough in its central storm sequence – but the mood of banal despair ripples out, showing not only the impact of Mouchette’s hard life but making us understand the world she lives in. This isn’t a happy France, but a withdrawn, shadowy place full of crime, greed, cruelty and suffering where even a supposed goodie like Mouchette’s ailing mother turns out to be as selfish as everybody else. The nearest you could suggest that Bresson was making a film for his times is that it seems informed by 1960s pessimism and prescient towards the youth-led protests of 1968… but with no signifiers it simply feels like life in all of its messy complexity. If, say, the Dardennes brothers (obvious disciples of Bresson) made this today, it wouldn’t be radically different.
This all makes it sound like an art-house slog, but despite Bresson’s reputation for being daunting, he is surprisingly accessible. This might not have the quasi-thriller structure of Bresson’s A Man Escaped or Pickpocket, but its through-line has offers as much narrative clarity as it delivers on metaphorical import. Where many of his contemporaries favoured the meditative approach through mise en scene, Bresson’s style is almost impatient, edited to guide us into observation and meaning. There’s even a punchy, dynamic interlude at the fairground where Mouchette flirts with a boy as they bash each other on the dodgems – it is sweetly satirical, a positive spin on the gloom elsewhere, and technically exhilarating in a way you don’t expect… albeit to make the gradual slide into hardcore sadness all the more pronounced.
The reason Bresson favours montage over mise en scene is that he uses non-professional actors. Like Hitchcock, they are models to be deployed for an archetypal look to fit the grand pattern of the film. Unlike Hitchcock, they aren’t mannequins – Bresson has an unparalleled faith in the power of the human face in repose to move us. As Mouchette, Nadine Nortier seldom says a word but is remarkably expressive, simply because her perpetually down-turned mouth and watchful demeanour make her seem like the saddest girl in the world. A trained actress would milk the pathos; Nortier’s inscrutability invites the audience to project the emotion.
To the sceptically minded, this is archetypal misery porn and an obvious inspiration to a school of directors who equate truth with torment. But Bresson’s gaze lacks sadism or sensationalism; he watches because he sympathises. The result is mature and measured, creating an ambiguity that shines through in the film’s famous ending – an act of defiance or despair? Inevitable or fiercely independent? As the action halts on an off-screen sound and the camera trained quietly, expectantly, on a still scene, there is hope and horror. You decide.