Mouchette Review

This review contains plot spoilers

Life is tough for fourteen-year-old Mouchette (Nadine Nortier), growing up in a poverty-ridden French town with a dying mother, an alcoholic father and a baby brother. Her main escape is into the nearby woodlands. One night she seeks shelter from a storm in a hut. In the hut is Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert), a poacher who has just killed a man and seeks to use Mouchette as an alibi.

Robert Bresson (1901-1999) was not the most prolific of directors: one short film from 1934, followed by thirteen features between 1943 and 1983. However, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest exponents of the cinematic medium, and his influence has been enormous. Jean-Luc Godard said, “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”

Mouchette was Bresson's eighth feature, his last in black and white. By this time, his approach was well-developed. While he used professional crews (the DP was Ghislain Cloquet, who had shot Bresson's previous film Au hasard Balthazar and would go on to shoot his next, Une femme douce) he used non-professional actors, or “modèles” as he called them. He rarely used them twice, though Mouchette has an exception: Jean-Claude Guilbert had previously played Arnold in Balthazar. Some of Bresson's modèles did go on to acting careers, Anne Wiazemsky (Balthazar) and Dominique Sanda (Une femme douce) among them. That wasn't the case for Nadine Nortier, who played Mouchette. Petite enough to pass for a fourteen-year-old, she was actually an eighteen-year-old bank clerk from Paris, and “Nortier” was not her real name; this was her only film.

Bresson and his cinematographers used just one lens throughout their films: the 50mm, which is the (spherical) lens which most closely approximates human vision. Visually, Bresson was of the school which aimed to simplify, to reduce to essentials, resulting in a spareness that partly explains the shorter running times of many of his films. (Mouchette just passes eighty minutes, while The Trial of Joan of Arc is the shortest at sixty-five.) This is an aesthetic approach followed by such as cinematographer Nestor Almendros who worked with others of a similar sensibility such as Rohmer and Truffaut, but not with Bresson. (That would have been a fascinating collaboration.) However, Almendros did work with Bresson devotee Maurice Pialat. And while we're following connections, Mouchette is based on a novel, Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette by Georges Bernanos, who also wrote the source novel for Bresson's earlier film Diary of a Country Priest. Mouchette also appears in Bernanos's novel Under Satan's Sun which Pialat filmed in 1987 and which I reviewed Masters of Cinema's DVD release of here). And there's another connection in the fact that one of Cloquet's assistants on Balthazar and Mouchette was Emmanuel Machuel, who went on to be one of the two cinematographers on Bresson's final film L'argent and was the main DP for Pialat's Van Gogh.

While Bresson pared away at the visual aspects of cinema, striving to move it away from filmed theatre, he paid particular attention to sound. We know about Mouchette's impoverished home life as much through one sound effect as anything else: the clonk of her wooden clogs as she walks to school and inside the school building. Bresson uses music sparingly, aiming for it to “transform” the film. Mouchette features the last example of non-diegetic music in Bresson's films, an extract from Monteverdi's Magnificat which plays over the opening credits and again at the end, when it is the suicide of the leading character which has been ennobled and transformed. Bresson described himself as a “Catholic atheist” and many have aligned him with Jansenism, a theological movement which emphasised human depravity and original sin, and suggested that only a few could be saved by divine grace. Mouchette is certainly a bleak story, of grinding poverty in a small-town rural French setting, of a short, circumscribed life with little happiness in it (almost the only time Mouchette smiles is when she's riding on the fairground dodgem cars) ending in rape (which she somewhat ambiguously acquiesces to – her arms in that scene forming a cross before she embraces her rapist, implying that he is sacrificing herself) and a final taking of her own life. Some of this is more troubling forty-seven years later than it was at the time: the use of the rape of an under-aged girl as a trope is certainly more problematic now. Also, a shot of schoolgirls swinging on a rail so that they show their knickers to the camera is one that many directors nowadays would hesitate to include. I'll mention in addition that Mouchette contains scenes of a bird being snared and a rabbit being shot, neither of which look faked to me. The symbolism of these is clear, and they do not fall foul of British law as the BBFC has never cut this material, but it's not comfortable viewing to say the least.

While I'm not convinced it's his greatest work, Mouchette is a notable one by one of the cinema's great directors, so full marks to Artificial Eye for releasing it on Blu-ray. A Blu of Au hasard Balthazar will follow soon, and let's hope that others will too.

The Disc

Artificial Eye's release of Mouchette is on a BD25 disc. It begins with the usual ad for Curzon Home Cinema. A DVD edition with identical content was released on 26 August 2013; affiliate links for that edition can be found here.

Mouchette was shot on black-and-white 35mm film and the Blu-ray is in the correct ratio of 1.66:1. While the Blu-ray transfer does look very nice, with the contrast and greyscale so vital to monochrome spot on, there is still some damage, with a couple of noticeable vertical scratches in some scenes. Nothing too distracting, though.

The soundtrack is presented in the original mono, as LPCM 2.0. It's clear and well-balanced. The Magnificat continues over a black screen for some twenty seconds after the end of the film. English subtitles are fixed, on both the feature and the one extra.

That extra is Zum Beispiel Bresson (29:55), a German-made short film, directed by Theodor Kotulla, about the making of Mouchette. The title, subtitled as For Instance Bresson, is a play on the German title of Bresson's previous film (Zum Beispiel Balthazar). The narration is in German, and Bresson and others' interviews to camera are spoken in French but given a German voiceover. There's plenty of interest here, with much exposition of Bresson's working methods, including multiple takes. For example, we see him coach Nadine Nortier through a shot where she has to stand against a wall, late in the film. And while we're following extra-cinematic connections, the cinematographer of this short film was Thomas Mauch, best known for his later work withWerner Herzog. This extra is in 4:3 and is in Standard Definition (576i).

8 out of 10
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