Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 8
1967 // France // Robert Bresson
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Death in Salvation
Watching Mouchette and Au hasard Balthazar (1966) back to back with a sheer 15 minutes break in-between, as arranged by my local film house, is both an ethereal and devastating experience in the sense of witnessing tremendous suffering and mortification onscreen. Bresson filmed these two films consecutively without a hiatus, both feature public cruelty and injustice befallen upon the central characters, Marie and the donkey Balthazar in Au hasard Balthazar and Mouchette in the later one. Both stories take place in the provincial territory and end with a transcending death. While Balthazar is an idea originated from Bresson, Mouchette is a direct adaptation of the novel by Georges Bernanos, the second Bernanos’s work Bresson adapted since Diary of af a Country Priest (1951). If there’s a reason why the local theater screened Mouchette first rather than following the chronological order, I believe it’s attributed to the more bleakness one would experience when Mouchette ends and the screen faded to complete darkness.
The film ends with Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) committing suicide, an acts to relieve herself from the worldly sordidness and recommence in eternity, whereas Balthazar, with his passive nature being an animal, simply submits. In the prologue, Mouchette’s mother (Marie Cardinal) briefly appears before credit rolls with the secular music of Claudio Monteverdi’s Magnificat. Only after Mouchette repeatedly rolls down the slope and eventually succeeds in plunging into the river at the third time (conveys by the sound of water splashing and the final shot of splash still in progress), Monteverdi’s Magnificat then be reintroduced and continued over the fade-out, thus stressing the connection between Mouchette’s ailing mother, who’s the only one offers a slim comfort to her, and her final decision to drown herself, manifested almost like a game play awaiting a sudden emergence of contingency before finally roll over the thin brushes at the embankment.
Mouchette is the first of Bresson’s protagonists to commit suicide, as we witness in the several days preceding her suicide, she bears not a glimmer of hope and finds no comfort in faith. Christianity is ostensibly exhibited in the form of church, and Mouchette’s life is essentially Godless, put it into Georges Bernanos’s own words, “the feeling of God’s absence was the only sign left of his existence.” Mouchette’s impoverished state, including the oversized clogs and tawdry clothes, living and sleeping in a compacted room with her ailing mother, infant brother and the liquor-bootlegging father (Paul Hebert) and brother, evokes desperation without falling into the trap of sentimentality. Mouchette’s failure to fit in at school and the humiliation inflicted by the classmates and teacher add an extra pathos to her insufferable life. The only scene with a joyous youth and erotic attraction, like any “normal” adolescent would have, occurs at a bumper cars ride in a fair, which is cut short afterwards with the interfering of Mouchette’s savage father.
The subplot of the rivalry between the poacher Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert) and the gamekeeper Mathieu (Jean Vimenet) over the barmaid Louisa (Marine Trichet) is prominently featured in the first half, acts as a set-up for a subsequent shared night between Mouchette and Arsène in the shack amid the woods. Mouchette’s attempt for connection with Arsène, a man whom she considers as an outsider as herself, and thereby sings a comforting song when he goes under an epileptic fit, would end up in a rape. The pernicious aftermath only accentuates after her mother died at the same night. There’s a fundamental parallelism between the birds and hares being hunted and ensnared in the woods with Mouchette as the prey of the world’s curelty, thus connecting the two threads. As the animalistic nature of humanity is demonstrated, the death of Mouchette can be seen as a revelation of innocence against all the cruelty.