Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest broach many compelling subjects, not the least of which being that humankind is faced with enormous hindrances against lucidity, dignity and joy. The crushing gravitational assaults we have witnessed there (that is to say, the enervation) hint that to come through this with any sense of gusto you had better be on your toes. An adjunct to that situation is the importance of assistance by wise and loving counsel. The activation of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête in those works insinuates a rich and necessary dream of mutual discovery and equilibrium in the presence of another whose rightness comes as a marvel. Implicit in that primal content of nature is the special vulnerability and neediness of children along those lines. If such a slippery dynamic proves a virtual killer for the fit and the bright, where does it leave those not yet fully equipped for the firestorm? A third film by Bresson, namely, Mouchette (1967), engages head-on this crisis of blighted regeneration in nature. Extra testimony to its compellingness is provided by Terrence Malick’s choosing it for the subject of his first film, Badlands, which we’ll tackle two weeks from now.
The general state of affairs of crumpled body language, forming the historical topsoil from which genetic/developmental immaturity sends forth its searing recital, pervades every frame of Mouchette. But one episode carries a peculiar impact and thus generously kicks things off for us. The young protagonist’s father and brother have delivered in the middle of the night a regulations-unencumbered shipment of some beverage to the village bar, and the owner pours them a drink, looking their way for some normal transactional sentience. The guys reach for their glasses as would a pair of dexterous iguanas, steely-eyed and dead-set upon the vittles. They rapidly glom the windfalls in unison (there is a second round just in case, and a perfunctory toast) and toss them back accordingly, not unlike feeding time in a pet shop. They wheel from their bar stools and depart as if they were in a deserted building. A similar desiccated rigidity covers the opening scene, where a gamekeeper stalks a poacher. The latter sets a trap consisting of a wire snare (taken from out of a little box full of such sterile appliances) and a leafy branch, to be placed across a pathway made by small animals. During this calculation, we see each in turn, by way of extreme close-ups, as framed by sparkling foliage. A grouse scurries by, becomes entangled and, without a peep, struggles in the shrubbery, only the fierce thrashing of its wings and the shaking twigs coming forward. Then it becomes still, lying on its side, and a chill cuts across the sunny turf. Suddenly it is moving once again, the game warden strides up to it and sets it free. The poacher watches this from a blind, again shown in close-up, his eyes almost reptilian. On the way home the gamekeeper passes schoolgirls entering the schoolyard, one of whom is conspicuous for her ragged clothes, ratty ribbons in her hair (a touch Malick will follow up with his young protagonist, Holly) and (looking like some kind of organic decay) oversized shoes that clatter as she plods along. (Obtruding here, to offer some vague qualification of the zombie-like proclivities seen in the bush, we have the lawman going on to attempt a stolid flirtation with a young but already faded barmaid at the place Mouchette’s father supplies. She gives him a zoologically tinged brush off. This very small drama is followed by the poacher’s trying his hand; and, although rapture fails to happen, she does tell him to come back soon.) A day later, Mouchette’s in a music class where the other girls are neat and clean, the teacher glares her way and, the song underway (with its line, “Pointing to the vast sky ahead that stretches to the horizon…”), she catches by surprise the more than wardrobe-distressed sparrow (mouchet) who, like the grouse, is too alarmed to burst into song. Dragging the unmusical-one up to the piano, she clutches her by the neck and places her ears right over the keyboard. She forces Mouchette to sing (done in a tight little squeal), and then, on her going off-key at a little twist in the melody, she fires off a volley of the correct note, which the girl repeatedly cannot reach, and she dissolves into tears, covering her face.
“The vast sky ahead” does nothing for this gawky little bird (about fourteen years old, but so compromised in so many ways she is exposed as a hapless chick), who does have a nest but not for long. The night of the joyless toast, she is by her sick mother’s bedside applying a warm cloth to the breast we had heard that lost woman describe, in a brief prologue, as “like a stone inside me…” (“What will become of them?”) In contrast to her embarrassment and high tension in school, Mouchette’s physical bearing here is quietly expressive of love and being steadily within a range of actions she can manage. Perhaps ominously, her dad returns from the nocturnal business without so much as looking toward his wife, flops back on his cot, and, using his cap as a steering wheel, pretends to be tooling along the highway, making motor sounds at appropriate gear levels. This wakens the baby and Mouchette calms her little brother by gently rocking him in her arms. Then she lies back in her cot, faced with a day after little sleep, clearly one of many hurdles for her to clear. On being thus introduced to the dysfunctionality of her upbringing, we behold a spate of savagery striking at precisely the kinetic tempo and resilience she is faced with developing on her own. The (Sun) day begins well enough, with Mouchette preparing café au lait and humming that school song with a trace of lightheartedness natural to her age. Then the three mobile family members approach the church in their Sunday best, she, chaffing in a way she couldn’t explain, splashes around in a mud puddle, and her father (an unconvincing force of piety) pushes her through the doorway as if he were a sheep dog, she dips one hand into the holy water and crosses herself (from which she turns a visit to the holy water basin into a lampoon) without conviction. From there we see her once again in water, this time washing glasses (with no conviction at all) at the bar during its busiest period of the week. She’s paid her pittance, takes the money with a scowl on her face and mechanically hands over the coins to Dad, who gives her a shot of liqueur for her trouble. She wanders off toward the amusements taking advantage of the heavy traffic and pauses gloomily at the bumper cars. A woman with a baby-in-arms hands her some replacement coins, and Mouchette has her moment in the sun. (The benefactor’s being a tantalizing echo of her sidelined mother gives us to understand we’re amidst a special intensity of the dilemma driving this work.) That rude collisions punctuate the fun help us to realize that the real-life endeavor, so far beyond her resources and developmental circumstances, involves playfully proceeding with crude assaults and thereby eschewing suicidal outrage and despair. On the chaotic roadway, bone-rattling collisions are met by her with gleeful resilience, readiness for continuation of the rough play with its undertone of strange and exceptionally mysterious deftness. (This arcade offers nondescript pop musical motifs to supplement the state of being a fledgling.) A young man becomes a major force in her helter-skelter plunge, and again and again she encounters him, gaining confidence, inventiveness and sensual delight. Only here do we see that she does possess a smile, lovely and fresh and, at the same time, ancient. The magic subsides as she leaves the floor at the ride’s end. The new and brief friend walks by and she watches his progress to another game. She comes up to him, begins to smile and that smile is ripped away (in a grand touch of cinematography) by her father’s grabbing her from behind and slapping her with the leadenness we already expect from him. At the bar’s patio table she sits with her eyes streaming tears. Then we watch the poacher and the barmaid readily (if cloddishly) going aloft on a rocket ride (the school song had been about the contrarian audacity and perseverance of Christopher Columbus), an opportunity to test themselves as adults, a process from which Mouchette has been blocked, as by some kind of cosmic avalanche. Next, we see her bending over and gently kissing her Mom, whose large-boned rural presence exudes (from out of a [too] fragile thread of love) anguish about not being able to guide her fledgling.
(The display of debilitating gravity, which translates nowhere more alarmingly amongst Bresson’s films than here with Mouchette, as augmented by the method of virtual nonexpression by novices, might be taken for a rationale on behalf of a macabre causal regime, reducing human efforts to twitching on the order of primitive organisms. In fact many who have struggled to comprehend the compelling and puzzling coherence of Bresson’s work think to have gained entry into what it is about with reference to his upbringing in the Jansenist tilt of Catholicism. That guidance system on behalf of a successful liftoff to heaven attaches itself, with murderous intensity, to the warp of causality intrinsic to normal, coagulated sensibility and goes on from there to insist that every gesture of a human entity has been predetermined by a super-personal originative force. The subtleties and sophistication in the examination of Mouchette’s plight suggest that beneath the dull lurching of common, normal life a richly problematic freedom of intent, one that includes a [secondary] dimension of material runoff as overt to and to some extent governable by free finite endeavor, strives to sing quite a different song.)
As mentioned, the poacher and the game warden both hunt Louise, the young but already middle-aged-tense bar maid, and that leaves them embroiled in a multiplicity of conflict, which they discharge in that ponderous and yet paper-thin motion coming to bear upon nearly every action of this little world. (Mouchette’s classmates essay some of the aura of “vast sky ahead”—the older girls joining up with boys on mopeds, the younger ones doing trapeze curls on a playground bar, saucily exposing their panties—but all within the confines of immovable rural domesticity.) On being humiliated by the vast sky musician (Columbian exploits somehow touching a nerve in that epicenter of atavism), Mouchette periodically lobs wads of mud toward her sniggering classmates, in face of which they manage the cool (while sampling perfumes) of acting as if it were not worth noticing (as it happens, one of the most valuable skills being at school can elicit). Thereby self-cast as a hopefully intrepid guerrilla, she one day heads into the nearby and omnipresent woods and becomes entangled in the bathetic jousting of the poacher and the gamekeeper, the gaucheries of whom constitute a sort of busker slapstick comedy for much of that dour population. (The married game warden goes into a little snit on seeing Louisa take that rocket ride with the poacher-Columbus. “But you love someone else. Say something, Louisa!” After hearing one of his churchgoing neighbors remark at the bar, “He’s making a fool of Mathieu,” the law enforcer growls, “I’ll get him!” [and we can imagine the subsequent chortling].) That morning she had watched from her window, along with her father (in rare concert), as the warden, equipped for a cold, wet night in the bush, headed along the road to force a showdown with the relentless rascal. Now she was tramping through their terrain of distemper, but soon the wind gets up, and a torrent of rain follows, against which, like a little bird, she tucks her head under her wings. Soaked to the skin by that material upheaval within the groundswell of dynamics, losing one of those ill-fitting noisy shoes in a morass of gluey muck, she finds herself, hidden by bush and blackness, at the site of a duel by the lumpen go-getters. The poacher sets a trap for bigger game than before, the law-man comes up from behind, puts a grab on his enemy, who quickly demands, “Take it!” and, on seeing the former’s indecisiveness, leaves him there and soon rushing up to touch upon another (storm-tossed) melodramatic matter. “Stay away from Louisa!” The poacher then chokes his would-be nemesis, they struggle upon a rocky stream bed and, in a twist that Mouchette quickly loses interest in (she far more intent on drying her stockings), they both start to laugh at the ridiculousness of their Bugs Bunny/ Elmer Fudd histrionics, and they share a drink from the poacher’s constant supply. Soon after this weird and edifying turn of events, the poacher, heading for his bivouac nearby, notices Mouchette and asks her with some embarrassed asperity, “What are you doing here?” Her response, somewhat misleading, cuts, in fact, to the chase that has put the grab on her—“Lost, Sir! Lost!” (The French expression runs, “Perdue, Monsieur! Perdue!”—which the film’s translation fumbles in terms of, “I got lost!”)
The unsuspected pairing streaming from this chance encounter measures the full proportions of her lostness. They enter his thatched hideout to dry off by the fire, he gives her some wine and then he pointedly instructs her, “You weren’t in the woods. At the crossroads you saw me.” He goes on to cauterize with a red-hot splinter the cuts on his hand caused by the brawl, and he is at pains to delete the ashes which would suggest he had been there this night. Following him to a place he has access to in the village, she learns that he’s spooked by the prospect that the smack on the head the gamekeeper received in falling to the rocks along the stream might have eventually killed him. He goes about burning wood like mad—“We’ll have a mountain of ashes by morning”—to sustain the alibi that he was at home all night. (Accordingly, he refers to the brief rainstorm as a “cyclone,” a term the exaggeration of which speaks to her, and she runs it past her mother on finally arriving home.) She seizes upon this prospect of undermining authorities and their regulations that strike her as odious. “I’ll say he attacked you! I hate them…” The stress of his groundless imaginings (he did in fact hear Mathieu’s shotgun go off while they were at the bivouac) induces an epileptic seizure in him, a visit from an importuning, unhelpful nature. Mouchette, already competent in alleviating her mother’s discomfort, lifts his head and wipes his bloody and frothy mouth. She smiles in being effective and sings for him the song about Columbus—“Hope, hope is dead/ His crew despaired…”—in a steady voice at the right pitch throughout. Both have drunk too much. His panic sends him over many fears, violent gambits. “One word and I’ll wring your neck.” Her fumbling efforts to leave, and his fumbling efforts to have her satisfy his craving for relief, come to a head with his clutching her to the floor, raping her and having her arms embrace him in a bid for spirituality almost totally bereft of solid grounds.
She slips away in the darkness carrying her book bag, a container pointing to a very different conclusion from that of Solange’s brother in Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort, also from 1967. Her course leads to caring for her mother on her very last day. In the absence of matches in the house to make a fire to warm the baby’s milk, Mouchette warms the bottle at her breast. That is only one gesture among many troubled by the shot in the dark serving as a high-water mark of her misadventure with sufficiency. As the baby drinks the milk while she provides further bodily comfort in the form of her embracing him, his eyes are wide and alert, touched by the vast sky ahead, and as such enough to mow down an alert audience. Preparing a clean diaper, she uses it to dry her eyes, cognizant of her dead end. She comes over to her mother, holds her hand and begins, “Listen, Mama…” But her bid for direction is deflected by the baby’s cries (to be responded to for perhaps the final time; his mother, with death in sight, can only complain, “Make him be quiet. I can’t stand it. I can’t breathe”). Taking a form of Communion from Mouchette, she has her fetch the family gin bottle. “If I die I’ll die without pain…” From out of numbed sensibility, she shares some wisdom, but not the wisdom Mouchette needs at this time. “Make sure you never get taken by lazy workers.” As she wakens, Church bells are already tolling her mother’s death, and most of the neighbors are also up to speed on Mouchette’s indiscretion, the poacher using her sleeping with him to rebut a charge of dynamiting the stream the better to harvest its cash crop. Her father, always ready with the mot just, addresses his fellow-mourner, “Stop staring at me, you little hussy!” As she leaves to find milk for the baby she fires back, pointless as ever, “Shit!” A shopkeeper calls her in, provides her with some café au lait and croissants, and that lady in charge and a woman customer pick up like lasers the scratch along her chest and neck. Mouchette, discountenanced by their shrewd scrutiny, knocks the bowl off the counter, shattering it. The curious Samaritan says, “Little slut!” and, in departing, Mouchette tosses a croissant her way. She shuffles along to the gamekeeper’s house, finding him to be not, in fact, a legal hurdle. While he’s already moved on to the dynamiting case—she parrying with, “I stayed with him nearly all night… He’s my lover… Ask him, he’ll tell you!”—his wife is sound enough to remark, “The poor child still reeks of gin… Your eyes are still hazy with it.” Lurching away from that, she is taken in by an elderly lady who has known her since she was a baby (not, in fact, so long ago), and whose perspicacity (not, in fact, so far removed from the Duchess in Diary of a Country Priest—“The priest says the dead go to heaven. But I have my own ideas… I love the dead. I understand them.”) ups the wattage at this point.
What, beyond senile fantasizing could she possibly mean by “understanding” the dead? If she is indeed akin to the Duchess, she would haunt the sphere of a love that burns away the claims of an egotistical cosmos with its claustrophobic pecking orders. She would understand that the death Mouchette’s mother has just entered upon and the death beckoning to Mouchette are to be discerned in their full validity by those who manage a heartland in the form of a raging wildfire which consumes and delights at one and the same time. Its appearance here, at the home stretch, would very effectively introduce one more daunting subtlety beyond our protagonist’s scope as she assimilates with finality the living deadness of her options. The lady asks Mouchette, “Do you ever think about death?… Your heart’s asleep. Don’t wake it up too fast… I only want to help. You can’t understand. There’s evil in your eyes.” Mouchette leaves with the shroud her unappreciated friend (who, in perceiving the deadly situation for the girl, has indulged in forcing the matter, and then bowed to a hard reality) has provided for her mother.
The girl’s book bag has taken her to a confrontation with another form of knowledge and another weight of failure and its unbearable disappointment. She wanders into a meadow where hunters are slaughtering a large number of small, wild creatures, rabbits, to be precise. Their shredding gunfire seems monstrous in a context of such quiet and child-like entities. We see them race about in hopeless panic, and one by one they are stilled forever. One of the furry victims is wounded and writhes in pain and terror. (Bresson has taken full and harrowing advantage here of the agrarian-privileged strain of the French public to carry his policy of no-fancy-pretending to devastating lengths.) Beholding this, the protagonist, who has taken us on a long, hard, barren and fertile treasure hunt, sits down at the bank of a rapidly moving stream. She wraps herself in the shroud and rolls toward the water, an effort proving, like so many others, to be inept. Picking herself up from being stuck in shrubbery, she sees a farmer going by on a tractor, along a road, and, because he is an entity supposedly of promise (like everyone else in the somehow unavailing world), she waves and he doesn’t notice. After a second embodiment of a wounded rabbit, a third link to gravity on that little hill pays off, we see the water that has already pushed her along (like her father) and a sacred refrain involving a horn and a choir puts an apt edge of primordial discovery upon our shakenness.
Happily, whereas, at the supplements to the DVD, the commentary by Tony Rayns allows its clogs to remain mired in the psychology of sexually coming-of-age, we have a behind-the-scenes documentary in which commentary by Bresson himself reveals, in broad and thereby only suggestive terms, what he was up to. (Rayns thinks we should know that he has it on good authority that many French directors more than sixty years of age have been fascinated by teenaged girls.) Noting the work’s confirming “solidarity in evil” (a sort of badlands), Bresson points out that Mouchette is, superficial appearances to the contrary, about “transformation of souls” which “occurs but is generally hidden” [and, he might have mentioned, of a half-way character and an extremely volatile nature—as in the birth of wit in the bumper-cars scene]. Bresson’s remarks to the questioner go on to maintain vigorously his works’ sensual baseline, their “cinematographic” assurance that features of sight and sound are paramount, especially as displaying urgencies of kinetic innovation, especially blending of sensuous forces. (“Without transformation it isn’t art.”) “Redemption must occur here. We must redeem ourselves within our lives.” The travesty of fruition, which Mouchette and Bresson’s other films spring on us, places the audience in as deadly an uphill climb as those tests coming about with the various protagonists. We are on notice to trace a “Negative Way,” an antithetical thrust against the dead weight, in the direction of its lightness, its history of play. The child in our film here, so bereft of playfulness, carries us bodily toward a homeland of mature play, and in so doing ushers us into traumatic hardness which only that hidden magic can effectively withstand and turn to account within an apt fruition.
Seemingly freighted with intellectual priorities, the films of Bresson boil down to a kind of circus, an easily overlooked saga of necessary thrills and delights (as measured by way of a mature consciousness). Stemming from and sustaining such kinetic intensity are infusions of interpersonal caring, implicit in Mouchette’s mother’s appreciation of the warm cloth her momentarily steadied daughter brings to her. “Warmth is what I need… I can breathe…” (Malick and other recent filmmakers have, I think, been emboldened by the circulation of “vast sky ahead that stretches to the horizon,” as inviting more overtly sensuous and accessible exertions, dramas that cook in accordance with a dazzling and molten astonishment at the core of our fleeting motions.)